The Crucial Moment - A short story by Dr. Ratan Lal Basu

THE CRUCIAL MOMENT

Short Story by Dr. Ratanlal Basu


The crucial moment – lurking menacingly behind the overhanging veil of smog, stretching slowly out its awesome tentacles like a gigantic octopus and waiting patiently to pounce upon its prey. I’m ensnared, would in no time be drawn into the fold of the monster. The horror shoots up my spine, oozes out and encompasses the ambience. It’s there in the pale yellow of the building, wavering against the mellow dusk light beyond the veil of smog. I’m inescapably caught like a fish hooked tightly. Like the poor fish I would writhe, squirm, jump, circle and struggle by all conceivable means to ineffectually let go of the hook and more I struggle more firmly would the hook get riveted in me. As a last resort I might probably try to break the line by running away fast and the demon, like a deft angler, would give line until I wear off all my ability to move any further and then the final pull would drag me along limp into the fathomless horror. I could have dived into it right away and rid the agony of waiting, but the abiding horror failed me. It’s silly, I thought; I’ve brains unlike the fish and I know fully well I’ve to encounter it eventually. 


It caught me unawares, for no fault on my part; unlike the fish I was not lured by the bait and it came upon me on its own, without any prior warning. You perform your duties meticulously in order to lead a happy life and things go the right way and you indulge in the bad faith that the beatified moment you loll in would be eternal and then it falls from nowhere all of a sudden; the conspiracy in the unknown world that had been seething now comes into fruition and engulfs you with all its monstrosity. Your faith on your ability to shape things your way is shattered as though by a sudden gust of strong wind and you end up in the ignominious submission that your destiny is being designed by forces beyond your comprehension, and you feel with utter helplessness that you are but a plaything at the hands of forces unknowable to you. 

I tried hard to pluck up courage and face the destiny and do away with the agony right away, but the horror that simmered within me forced me to postpone. I cast my gaze upon the faint wall showing beyond the translucent veil and tried to decipher the menace and my head got crammed. I took a step back and turned my eyes away. ‘Better pass off some time idly and prepare myself for the inexorable destiny’, I said to myself.   


While boarding the bus, I had braced myself up to go through the oncoming ordeals stoically and in course of the journey, I took stock of the pros and cons of the predicament and was quite self-assured I could face it bravely. 

Even upon alighting from the bus I was still in the same confident mood and strode along down to the corner where the road turns left into the narrow lane that leads on to the house. I stepped up into the sweetshop raised high with a few wide stairs at the corner of the lane and looked intently at the trays full of sweets displayed in the glass show cases. I’m to select sweets to be bought in accordance with the Bengali tradition of taking along sweets as a gift while visiting the house of some relative or a known person’s on non-official matters. The large sandeshes caught my sight and I decided to buy some. I was at the point of asking the stall boy the price of the sweets while my nerves gave way and a feeling of terror crept up my spine. I stepped down and looked ahead and it caught my sight, lurking behind the thin veil of smog. I felt I had no power to pierce through the veil and face right away the terror, the crucial moment. I’m to take time and pull my nerves together again, I though. 

I turned right into the road and started walking along the pavement that was not crowded now. As a matter of fact, the main road to the cremation ground is a wider parallel road hundred meters to the north of this secondary road. Only a few passersby were traipsing along the pavements and some gossiping around the shoulder of the road. Cars, rickshaws and vans were parked here and there and the stench from heaps of garbage forced me to put the hanky to my nose. In the pavement opposite me a girl and a boy were seated on a cemented slab encircling the trunk of a tree and talking closely with enlivened eyes. They were in the trance of a dream of a blissful life without knowing that this would be denied to them. But still this momentary happiness is meaningful and without these false hopes and dreams we could hardly wade along in this unpredictable life. A laborer with a heavy load on his head had almost knocked me down and as I could barely manage to sidle in time; he muttered something inaudible, may be abuse for walking absently. 

My mind drifted off to the past. Since the demise of my parents within the span of one year my eldest brother was the lone person on earth who loved me truly and unconditionally. I, however, don’t mean to say that I’m not loved by anybody else; there are many who love me including my wife and children, but their love is conditional. I’m to buy it by meticulously adhering to norms of relationship and I know fully well that the slightest slip from the norms would shatter their love like a house of cards and therefore I’m to be always cautious about my behavior with them and to guess their sentiments, demands and moods. But this had never been the case with my parents and the eldest brother and I was assured of their love irrespective of my behavior. He was tall around six feet, a fair large face and large ever smiling eyes; he had black hair even at post-seventy and he always combed them close to his forehead and parting at the left side. I’d never seen him to be morose or angry. He liked to crack jokes and they were so funny that we all brothers and sisters used to double up in laughter whenever he cracked jokes. He was also very popular in his office, in the play ground and among the neighbors. 

I stumbled on a stray stone on the pavement and returned to the present with a start. I had reached the crossing where another road has cut this road perpendicularly. I stopped short and turning round my eyes watched the devotees saying their prayers to goddess kali at the temple that was raised high on a marble platform. There was a motley congregation; a bald headed lean octogenarian in a dhoti saying his prayers in closed eyes and alongside him a bare bodied swarthy laborer putting red vermillion on the forehead of a child, a family with a fat wife in bright yellow sari, her gaunt husband in snow white dhoti and shirt and a teenager daughter in red frock talking with the priest; many visitors just stepping up the stairs and leaving after offering pranam to the goddess. A young married woman around twenty climbed the stairs with her child on her lap, offered pranam and the child imitated her. In a few moments human life from childhood to old age unfolded with its magnificence, frailties and mystic significance. I thought of these devotees and it dawned upon me that it could have been better if I could have strong faith like them. 

We are helpless and try to get solace by praying to a doll which never hears our prayers. Still these people, with their blind faith, are happier than me and more unconcerned too. The bad faith (should I call it so!) relieves them from worries and anxieties and emboldens the spirit of these believers. They live in a world of hope and thereby overcome worldly sorrows. Who are irrational, these believers or atheists who frustrates over their misfortunes which are beyond their control? I thought rationality is to be redefined. 

Crossing the perpendicular road I proceeded toward the burning ghat and my nostrils were invaded by a horrible stench and looking around I caught sight of a shabbily dressed lunatic poking a heap of garbage with a stick. With my hanky at my nostrils I advanced toward the lunatic and watched him intently. He was dressed in a tattered blackened shirt and his thick longish hair was matted and encrusted with dirt. With the long pointed stick he was picking up dirt and examining them intently and making various gestures — nodding his head gravely like a philosopher, chuckling, scowling, making grimaces, laughing aloud. I was amazed to notice his reaction at different rejected stuff he picked up from the heap. He picked up a rejected condom and examining it closely, nodded his head approvingly and muttered some thing with a philosophic smile in his face. He must be appreciating the device that may prevent souls from enmeshing into this horrible world of misery and sufferings. The stench was now breaking through the filter of my hanky and I again started off for the burning ghat.    

In my childhood, my eldest brother had been inflicted once with typhoid and it had taken a very bad turn. After cure by administering heavy doses of antibiotic drugs, he was advised complete rest. Every evening during his convalescence, we gathered around him and in a weak voice he used to unfurl fantastic stories and one about the Siberian storks got deep into my mind and made me feel like those adventurous storks. Cold winter invaded Siberia, covering everything with deep layers of snow and the storks left their habitat and started their flight for a far away warm land to the south. They flew over oceans, rivers, greeneries, deserts, mountains and still went on flying. They dropped momentarily down at places where they could find any water body or food and after meeting their hunger and thirst they again started the endless flight. Many storks in the flock died under the stress of the tedious journey, but the rest went on flying leaving behind the dead comrades. The story had impressed me deeply and I started feeling as though I belong to the flock and am making an unending journey to escape the unendurable chill of life in this problem ridden world and without knowing where I would end up. 

I reached the burning ghat and in no time the strange ambience engulfed me. I got seated on a bench of a tea stall congested with mourners and people doing odd jobs at the ghat. Soon I felt I was inside the uncanny world – hums and chattering of people, disjointed talks that mingle up to make a meaningless jumble or may be having some meaning beyond my comprehension, dead bodies lined up to be burnt in turn, loud wailing and silent sobbing of dear and near ones of the dead, people busy with the last rituals. I got up and advanced slowly toward the adjacent jetty and my gaze fell upon some shabby laborers singing joyfully accompanied by sounds of high pitch percussion instruments. These people live from hand to mouth but are still happy as they never think of the morrow. I felt jealous for their happy life in spite of penury. I watched a sanyasi in an occult posture; he looked happy and gay. ‘He must be hopeful that by performing these occult rituals he would one day achieve communion with god,’ I said to myself. 

I thought once again, ‘These believers are happy unlike me with my silly logic and rationality!’ The water of the Ganges was now dark and on the other bank tiny dots of light were flickering. I happened to get nervous while appearing at the mathematics paper at the last examination at school. He gave me solace and helped me pull up my courage to do well in the rest of the subjects and it helped me immensely. I did well at the bachelors and masters examinations but thereafter political turmoil put me to trouble and I had to remain unemployed for a long time. The ordeal had brought about a complete metamorphosis of my charming temperament and some thing beyond my comprehension had happened to me. Let alone others, even I myself could not understand my behavior at times. But he could understand me. I had to be careful thereafter to cover myself with a mask so that to no other person my inner disgusting temperament is unraveled. Only to him I could be what I’m and soon I got assured in a wrong way that I could get away with doing anything to him. I had counted too much on his patience and disposition to forgive.

A loud hollering of “balo hari har bol” startled me out of cogitation and looking up I noticed an open vehicle carrying a dead body in a glass container. The vehicle stopped right at the gate of the burning ghat and some young boys hastened through the open gate probably to get the corpse listed for burning. Two ladies were holding tight a young woman crying vehemently and making wild gestures. She must be the wife of the dead I guessed. Her husband had died so early! No body could tell when and how the mysterious death would pounce upon one. If there be any god of death, either he has no rules in his kingdom or the rules are far beyond the comprehension of us the humans, I thought. Why a chubby healthy child is killed by one day’s fever and a nonagenerian with severe long term sufferings goes on living, no body could explain.   

The gloominess of the ambience encompassing the burning ghat stifled me and I set off. ‘It’s high time I ought to be ready for the encounter’ I said to myself. I pulled together my nerves and proceeded toward the eventful lane once again.

It was now early night and the road leading to the lane had got congested with vehicles and pedestrians and I had to wade through the jumble of pedestrians flowing down the sidewalk, jostling and pushing people in front and being pushed from behind. Two tempos had got head to head on the side of the road close to me and the driver of the vehicle taking the correct side was showering obscenities on that of the vehicle taking the wrong side. Soon vehicles lined up behind the two and the traffic on the road came to a stand still. Some young boys rushed to the spot and tried to convince the quarrelling drivers and bring traffic to order. I could struggle out of the spot and the way ahead was now easy to move along as many pedestrians had rushed down to the spot of quarrel either out of curiosity or for sheer fun. 

The sweet shop was now bristling with customers and I had to queue up for the counter. Standing in the queue, I looked aside and watched two bare bodied urchins blowing out bubbles from a paper container of froth. The bubbles were floating up, sparkling in the street light and bursting into oblivion making the boys holler out in ecstasy. They looked emaciated and semi-starved and the shorts they wore were threadbare and dirty. Still they looked happy and free from all worries. How I could be carefree like them I questioned myself. 

The boys at the counter were smart and served the customers promptly and my turn came in a while. I stepped briskly to the counter, portly ordered for the sweet; took the sweets packet in cardboard box, paid the man at the cash counter and forced myself into the lane and looking ahead into the smog I felt the terror once again spiraling up my body and I stood still for a while. Then the final pull of the angler came and I felt all my resistance gone. I moved onwards in spite of myself, like a zombie, toward the sinister jaws of the monster. I pushed the doorbell and heard footsteps descending down the stairs; he would soon open the door and be happy to see me and greet me with the same, ineffable smile in his face. Last night I got the e-mail from my nephew, “It’s a top secret between you and me. I’ve just got the biopsy report; this painless carcinoma is incurable and chemo-therapy is not feasible at this stage. Father is going to die in six months for sure.” I heard the clicking of the knob of the door and waited for the CRUCIAL MOMENT.



Dr.Ratan Lal BasuRatan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics.

Check out WBRi Online Bookstore Recommendatiuons on books by Dr. Ratan Lal Basu: CLICK HERE >

Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.

Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.


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