Like any other terrible event this one too began without much ado. In a nutshell, from what one could figure out, what was being assumed as the real reason, if that was true, then the event was really quite the run of the mill. As her parents returned home late every evening, their daughter was expectedly irritated. That was quite possible. For who likes to turn the key everyday and enter an empty house or just sit around in the room all alone? However, Jiji did not return home from school straight away. After school hours she would attend tutorial classes four days and dance classes on Wednesdays and vocal music classes on Saturdays. On Sunday mornings she would learn drawing at home. Could it be that returning from the dance class she became angry as she saw the yellow stick-on message slip on the fridge door? Definitely that’s what it was. Or else why should she roll the slip into a ball and hurl it so forcefully that it would get under the sofa, hit the wall behind and come out instantly? But then that message was really very ordinary. It read like this- dear darling your sandwich is in the hotbox. Wash your hands with Lifeboy liquid and then enjoy your snack. If Mitra Auntie calls, tell her we’ll be late in returning. If Subol comes with the laundry, give him twelve rupees. The money is under the phonebook. Be good, darling .Your mum mum Maa. If this message was the reason for Jiji’s anger then this happened after she read it or maybe prior to this at sometime she must have hurled her shoulder bag (perhaps by stooping a bit in the style of her favourite Ajju) aiming it for the bed in her bedroom. But the heavy bag perhaps grazed the door and turning somewhat fell about a foot and half from the wall with a hanging mirror. That is, on the left side of Jiji’s new box of shoes (Reebok).
It is difficult to say whether she had made a face at her grandma’s picture hanging next to the mirror or had confided in her about her alarming resolution. Opposite the wall with her grandma’s picture were the posters of perpetually irritated Azhar, Jackson in a black outfit and Sachin with a small ear stud. Perhaps she had even made eye contact with Jackson via the mirror. Maybe it was then that she thought of returning Rimpi’s cassette. Though on that day she hadn’t gone towards Rimpi’s house at all. Rather, keeping to the left of the Buddha temple, she walked in the direction diametrically opposite to that of Rimpi’s house. When the (Sony) Walkman was played later on, one immediately heard, “Did you even stop to notice the crying earth, the weeping shores?”
But this was a fact that so long as Grandma had been there, as soon as she heard Jiji’s footsteps on the stairs she’d open the door and wait for her to come up. Then as Jiji entered she’d hug her and help her take off her bag while exclaiming, – Phew, not a bag, it’s more like a sack. Jiji would then wash up and sit down cuddling up to grandma. Grandma would feed her milk, bananas, rice or milk pudding or fine chire. Grandma used to run her fingers through Jiji’s hair and say, your mum mum Maa will be late in returning tonight. With her face in Grandma’s lap Jiji would say mum mum Maa indeed!Grandma would tell her- darling, you shouldn’t speak like that about elders, God will be angry. Then Grandma would tell her stories about Buddhu Bhutum, Ashoka shasti and Chapra shasti. But on that day before she went out, Jiji hadn’t washed her face and hands. For the bathroom was absolutely dry. There was only some coke spilled in the wash basin. As a result one could figure out that Jiji had taken a coke can from those her father used for mixing with rum, had some of it and then emptied the rest into the basin. The can was later found lying on the sofa.
But, it still wasn’t clear exactly why she had left the house. Perhaps the unmistakable smell of Grandma’s body had wafted in sailing across in the fantasy boat of Buddhu Bhutum. Maybe, she wanted to teach her parents a lesson. She had reasoned- what do you think of yourselves? Or else, some unknown languor, boredom or strange void overpowered her and she found herself on the road. As in a dream, in some profound dream with the moon overhead, a person walks on towards some other dream. For the purpose of narration, let’s assume that while walking distractedly she had stopped suddenly. By suddenly stopping in her tracks she had become conscious of her surroundings. She realised that she had never come to this side of the lake before. On one side lay huge concrete pipes; on the other side the deep dark lake waters. Seeing the large moon reflected in the water she remembered her father’s words. For it was Dad who said in the morning that it was Buddhapurnima that day. As she stood in the moonlight feeling scared or was just thinking about going back while tidying her hair with her right hand, perhaps it was at around that time that Nelo had seen her.
But then Nelo wasn’t supposed to to have left the shelter at all that night. For he knew that Lottery Papu’s men were looking for him like mad dogs. If they got him they’d do him in right away. How would it feel to be done in, Nelo had no clear idea about that however. But this was certain too, that despite his years he was very experienced about such things so he wondered how much could it hurt; perhaps some more than when Raju’s gang had bashed in his face and threw him on the railway track.
But Nelo had observed many times that the public was terribly scared of dying. Just a few days ago when they were dragging Madna to hack him up, Madna cried abjectly. With a physique like Bacchan he was imploring, “ustaad, please let me go. I fall at your feet”. Before he died he had soiled his trousers, what a guy! Leaning against one of the huge concrete pipes Nelo thought and laughed to himself and sometimes thrust out his tongue through the gap between his broken front teeth. Actually, he had come out in order to buy booze. And he was returning with the booze down the inner alley towards the shelter. Suddenly seeing the moonlit concrete pipe he had the urge to take a swig sitting there. But he just kept on sitting, glued to the place. And that evening from the very first swig the booze gave him a real great kick. In Nelo’s own private jargon he was absolutely fulltight, fullchhakas. Nelo knew that the king of all highs was leaf. It was just out of this world-super duper, fantastico. The only snag was that you have to have it ready in time. Nelo realised this that time when he was in the lock-up. It began with yawns. Then water-streaming from the eyes and nose and the pain. Such pain that he felt as if his bones were being twisted and broken and would come out piercing his skin. Mate, this is called turkey, Bilu had told him. This addiction too he had learnt from Bilu while in jail. At first he’d vomit sometimes but now there was no such problem.
Though Bilu didn’t study much he was very well informed. He had said that all these addictions were the inventions of the sahibs. Who else but the sahibs could be so brainy, Nelo thought as he shut his eyes and could see in an immense 70mm screen, a torn yellow carpet. The man, who was writhing in pain in a corner of the carpet having been kicked, was Nelo’s father. The man who kicked him with a booted leg was Nelo’s uncle. Grabbing his uncle’s shoulder the woman who was laughing a lot and also tidying her hair was Nelo’s mother.
Because Nelo used to see this scene everyday when he shut his eyes he knew by heart the scenes that would follow. He knew that the man named uncle would then unzip his pants and piss on the man named father. And the woman named mother would laugh even more and while tidying her hair would get into a cab with his uncle. A little later the man called father would get up and tie up his lungi and not having anyone else to confront he would suddenly dislodge Nelo’s front tooth with a single punch. Nelo was watching this free show with eyes shut and thinking about these things absorbedly. The past sometimes ignites the memory. As it was happening to him then. His brain was on fire. With eyes shut he drew out the foil from his pocket. For he needed some more kick. Right at that moment dazzling bright light suffused his eyesight. Opening his eyes he saw that an immense moon had come down like a floodlight. First Nelo uttered a powerful six-letter word addressing the moon. Then to get out of the light he turned his face towards the left.
And just then he saw Jiji. He noticed that a jeans clad woman was standing there all-alone. She had a Walkman in one hand and with the other hand she was tidying her hair like the woman named mother.
Since morning the police station was tense with the news of the rape and murder of Antara (Jiji) the only daughter of poet-professor Dr.Mallinath Sarkar. Just now a peace procession had done its rounds and returned. In all the evening dailies of the city, the news had been highlighted. As a result the telephone kept on ringing in the police station. The Officer in Charge Chakrabartybabu had recently been transferred from Cooch Bihar to that police station after a lot of manoeuvering. Within days of his arrival this problem. He looked at the rings on his fingers and kept on turning them. Pearl, gomed, hakik. No, I must settle for a pola this time, he thought. He rang up his astrologer in Baranagar directly from the police station. The second officer had gone out to find out the reactions to the news. On his return, finding that the O.C. was absorbed in a telephonic conversation he lingered at the door, picking his teeth with a matchstick. When he saw that the call was over, Pareshbabu took out a particle of supari from his mouth, flicked it in the air and entered the O.C.’s office. As he sat down dragging a chair he said, “Sir, did you see the body? The left side is absolutely torn in shreds.”
“Ridiculous,” Chakrabartybabu said.”Watching TV has ruined this nation.”
“The mouth was gagged tightly. Doesn’t seem to be a gang job, maybe one or two persons. There must have been a previous grudge.”
Chakrabarty remarked, “Who can have a grudge against such a young child?” Pareshbabu laughed. “Young child! ” He made his right eye somewhat maller. Then he said, “Child indeed! You don’t know these girls of South Calcutta.”
Chakrabartybabu nodded his head dismissively, “No, no, how can there be any question about the North or South here?”
“It is so sir. No girl from my locality of Barasat would ever be found standing near some lake in the dark night. And that too at eight o’clock in the evening. I assure you this is a sequel to some past case. Have seen a lot in these few years. All this really repulses me”. Having stated this Pareshbabu took out another matchstick and while rubbing the tail of the stick with his finger, he went out of Chakrabartybabu’s office.
After Paresh Saha left, Chakrabartybabu suddenly remembered that it was Wednesday today, that meant that it was the day when his daughter took vocal music lessons. This was his daughter Nandita’s final year. But no, there was no necessity of her travelling all the way from Salt Lake to Teghoria with the dark stretch of the VIP road in between. Gosh, he couldn’t think any more. His Omega wristwatch showed that it wasn’t 7 PM yet. He called home. He asked his wife Rani, “Has she gone out?” “Who?” “Who else! Your daughter. Has she left for her music lessons?”
“No, but she’ll be going in a while. Why?”
“ Listen, from now on she’ll be taking music lessons at home”
“O God, what’s this, Jayantababu doesn’t tutor students in their residences, you know that.”
“Then she’ll have to take lessons from someone else. She shouldn’t go anywhere on her own, that’s all. Nowhere. Understood? It’s my order and it’s final.”
“Tell me, what’s the matter?”
“What can you do hearing about it? What can you do?” An irritated Chakrabartybabu asked.“ The simple fact is that from now on she shouldn’t go out anywhere in the evenings.” Having said this, without caring for a reply, Chakrabartybabu banged down the receiver.
Today Jiji’s house was swarming with people. As a matter of fact, their next door flat belonging to Monica was also crowded with Jiji’s relatives. Jiji’s uncles and friends of her father were sitting in Monica’s drawing room. Jiji’s maternal uncles were in Jiji’s flat. Her mother Binota’s colleagues were there too. Binota was sitting with her back resting against Jiji’s bed, her feet stretched out. Jiji’s aunt, Binota’a sister was holding her hand. Facing them, on Jiji’s study table a photograph of Jiji’s was held upright with a thick Oxford dictionary behind it, for support. Jiji’s maternal uncle would take the photograph today for lamination. Jiji’s father had taken this snap last year just before they visited the Elephanta caves. In the left corner of the snap Jiji could be seen laughing a lot, wearing a pink polka dotted frock. Holding her, positioned in the middle of the snap was a smiling Binota. She was wearing a scarf and sunglasses. The right side of the snap was almost covered by Binota’s flying aanchal. If observed attentively, the batik motifs on the sari would suggest Worli art patterns. One could catch a glimpse of the old building of the Taj hotel behind the flying aanchal.
The kitchen was being supervised by Jiji’s Kakima.Her Jethima was suffering from gout which had aggravated somewhat. so she was sitting on a stool in front of the kitchen. Wearing a pair of mustard corduroy trousers and a saffron kurta, Mallinath was walking in and out of the two flats. He had a cup of black coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Mallinath’s aged aunt sniffed as she consoled her nephew, “ Don’t break down Bhola (Mallinath’s pet name).”
|“All these are the trials of God.” God, my foot, thought Mallinath.|
Mallinath threw the lighted cigarette on the floor and put it off by stamping rubbing it underfoot.
Mangoes were being sliced for the guests, apart from coffee and sandesh. But no one was having a go at the food served. Someone might just pick up a sandesh or a slice of mango. Jethima, who was sitting near the kitchen door remarked, “Nomu, you have made the mango slices too small.”
|“Oh, don’t worry, didi, I’ll be giving them forks.”
“But where will you get so many forks in this pandemonium?”
Shoroma (the part-time domestic helper ) who was washing the cups and saucers as she sat on the floor said, “The forks are in the top shelf of Boudi’s sideboard.” Jethima told her in a somber tone, “Wash the cups Shoroma”. A whole lot of fruits, flowers and sweetmeats had arrived. Both Binota’s and even Monica’s large BPL refrigerators were almost full. Wish I could have taken home a few, Shoroma thought. The children at home were always hungry. And then, no one would give her anything on their own.They’ll throw them away, but they won’t give.Then suddenly Shoroma remembered Jiji. Only a few days back, it seemed, that girl, wearing a pair of red pants, had followed her around the house as she attended to her chores. Within days the little girl grew almost as tall as her father did. O dear, Shoroma thought and tears rose in her eyes.
Fiji’s Kakuei’s son Joyo was having a cool time today. He had taken out a Barbie doll from the glass case and he was giving it a bath to his heart’s content, in the blue wash basin, at the corner of the balcony. Today no one was asking him to eat, wear his shoes nor stopping him from messing with water. If such things happened occasionally, it would have been really great, Jiyon thought as he sprinkled water on the doll’s face by pressing his finger on the mouth of the tap to allow only a trickle to come out. He knew that his Jijididi had been killed by naughty people. Yet Jiyon didn’t cry at all. Because he knew that a little later He-Man would turn up, sword in hand and after a dishum dishum fight he would bring back his Ji-didi.
Within three days of Jiji’s incident, Nelo was murdered in the alley behind the market, in front of Jamai’s old teashop. After he had awakened Putia and collected a supply of goods, it was during his return trip to the den via the shortcut, that a group of eight surrounded him at about a quarter to six in the morning. They were armed with sword, chopper, pipegun and revolver. They shot Nelo next to the ear and in the head four times, out of which one bullet hit the wall behind the market and thus a new bullet mark was born. They then pushed with their feet Nelo’s body lying in the middle of the alley towards the drain. Then clapping their hands this group sang out the song pardesi, pardesi in a chorus and walked through the middle of the market towards the railway tracks. It was inevitable that after such an incident the market would close down immediately. After this as a sort of routine a few retaliatory murders took place and then peace was restored.
After that incident of Jiji’s, new streetlights were installed in the Lake area. after a time these were either broken or stolen and the lake returned to its pristine darkness. As a result, lovers, the police and even the patties vendor were very relieved for everything had resumed running smoothly, according to the erstwhile system. There was no problem anywhere.
This year the date of Buddhapurnima had advanced by five days from the date of last year. Once again that immense, pervasive yellow moon. Binota slept in Jiji’s room nowadays. Really, no one remembered. No one came today, she thought. It was a fact that after all it was she who had lost her daughter, how could the world be bothered about it. They had come on that day of course, with flowers.
Except Binota there was no one else in the flat today. It was about nine months since she had left her job. Now she spent most of her day in the mission library. She even went there sometimes in the evenings to hear discourses about the Gita and the Upanishads. Her Guru has asked her to devote more time to meditation but whenever she tried to meditate that face seemed to rise in her mind. She gave up the effort. She rearranged little Jiji’s books or unfolded her clothes and smelt them deeply. Then she folded them again. At one time she had thought of keeping Shoroma’s youngest daughter with them. But due to Mallinath’s fierce objections the wish remained unfulfilled.
Many advised her about having another child. Thirty-seven wasn’t such an age after all they said. Maybe, that was so. But she no longer wanted to even think of such possibilities. She was filled with an undefinable revulsion. In fact the desires of the body had died in her. Returning from her room at night, Mallinath had called her a frigid bitch. One day he even was about to slap her.And if this went on for long it would be difficult to continue the relationship, Binota understood. Yet, she wasn’t able to like it any more.
Since this evening she had been sitting, clutching one of Jiji’s tops to her bosom. As she sat there she wondered, suppose the calling bell did ring someday. And as she opened the door if her little Jiji rushed into her arms! From somewhere deep inside the tears welled up. Raising her face she saw that the same unabashed and accursed moon was staring at her fixedly. And through the open window moonlight was streaming into the room, pervading it. She wiped off her tears with her aanchal. Then she got up and shut the windows. She drew the curtains fast, not allowing any slit.
Mallinath passed his days teaching, participating in seminars and gossips. He didn’t seem to be able to write poetry nowadays, the few that he wrote, bore strains of the older ones. Sometimes when he remembered Jiji he reasoned that the living didn’t have to keep on mourning for the dead. He knew that the life of man was like a huge kaleidoscope. Everytime it was stirred, new patterns were formed. And it was a person’s duty to observe these patterns and make written records of some of these. That’s all, nothing more. As a result, there was no point in being particularly happy or sad about it.
Their bi-weekly coffeehouse gossip sessions on Saturdays and Thursdays had stopped a long time back. Nowadays, they held sessions on each full moon evening. On each such evening, they met in one or the other friends’ houses. Due to Binota’s intense objection such get-togethers had stopped in Mallinath’s house. Therefore, he felt self conscious about joining these sessions. But today matters were a little different. The session was being held on the terrace of Mallinath’s childhood friend Badal’s house in Salt Lake. Today the function was organized to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of Badal’s first book of poems, “A Metaphysical Passage”. Two types of scotch were being served, Blue Label and Black Dog. For Mallinath they had exclusively purchased Golden Reserve. He was sitting in a corner with eyes shut, listening to Badal’s old poems. Twenty-five years had flown past so soon, he thought. He also recalled how after picking up Badal’s book from Durlav’s press, he had taken the tram to College Street. From there straight to the jetty. O dear, he had grown so old, old.
In the cab on his way back he felt that he must have had more to drink that evening. He wiped the sweat from his face with his handkerchief as he came near the middle of the bypass where that thickset statue stood. Turning towards the rear glass of the cab he felt as if a monster moon was chasing them. Seeing the moon he remembered the God Tejkatalipocha. The myth stated that whenever he appeared over the earth everything would turn terribly violent.
After taking the change from the cabby Mallinath seemed to realise that he was having breathing problems. Ultimately, he had to sit down after leaning against the shutter of the shop facing his house, the shop from which he used to buy his cigarettes and previously Cadbury for Jiji on his way back home. At first he thought, is this a heart attack? A while later he nodded his head. For he knew he couldn’t let go so easily. Then he suddenly saw Jiji standing wearing her white, round necked T-shirt. She kept on laughing with her head to one side,
“Babi, Sachin is greater than your Gavaskar.”
“What’s happening?” Mallinath said aloud as he tried to draw himself up supported by his hands. Right at that moment along with the moon the entire sky spun around like a top in front of his eyes.
Rabi, the caretaker of the house (Sky Lamp) opposite to that of the shop had gone up to the terrace with his new wife. His wife had lived in Belda so long.
This was her first visit to Calcutta. All these large houses made her feel that everything was so like the movies. Suddenly, spotting Mallinath lying on the ground she drew Rabi’s attention to the prostrate body, by poking Rabi about the waist. Rabi grinned and laughed. Then he said, “Oh that’s our Mallibabu”. Maybe he had a little too much to drink tonight.When he comes out of it he’ll get back home.” Saying this Rabi held his new wife by her shoulders. And said, “Tell me dear, did you ever see such a large moon in your Belda?” As she observed all the gigantic, unearthly houses around her and the moon like a strange brass plate shining overhead, Rabi’s wife felt that really perhaps such a large moon had never risen in her native Belda. She rubbed her face against Rabi’s vest. On that full moon night everything seemed very beautiful to her.
Translated from Bengali by Sanjukta Dasgupta.
Gautam Sengupta is a famous Bengali short story writer who has the katha prize to his credit. In “A Full Moon Night”, Sengupta narrates in lucid prose the shattering events of a Budhapurnima night when Antara (Jiji) is raped by Nelo- a rape that ends in the death of the victim. Yet Nelo himself is a victim. The grief and the remorse of the girl’s parents-Mallinath and Binota- who felt that the tragedy could have been averted if they had been with their daughter, the fateful night, the slow inexorable forward march of time, the murder of Nelo, Mallinath’s obsession with drink– they are all presented with insight by Gautam Sengupta.
SANJUKTA DASGUPTA. Head, Department of English, Calcutta University. She is a poet, critic and translator. Her published books are The Novels of Huxley and Hemingway : A Study in Two Planes of Reality and Snapshots. Participated in the Oxford Conference on Teaching Poetry held at Corpus Christie College, Oxford in 1997. She received the British Council Scholar grant and the Fulbright Postdoctoral research fellowship.member of many councils and associations including the Women’s Studies Research Center, Calcutta University. Associate Editor of the Journal of women’s Studies, Calcutta University.