"Niharbabu's Last Rites" by Nirendra Dev : An English Short Story (WBRi Online Magazine)

Niharbabu's Last Rites

By Nirendra Dev

A Short Story


Nirendra Narayan DevEditor's Note: Nirendra Narayan Dev (nirendev1 [at] gmail [dot] com), an acclaimed political journalist, is a special correspondent of The Statesman, New Delhi and author of the books Ayodhya : Battle For Peace, The Talking Guns North East India and Godhra A Journey To Mayhem. Nirendra was born and brought up in India's northeast and his father served with paramilitary force Assam Rifles. His blog is at bestofindiarestofindia.blogspot.com.

We have previously had an opportunity of talking to the author and have posted the audio recording of the interview.

WBRi has the pleasure of publishing a series of short stories by Nirendra. Search with keywords "Nirendra Dev" to read his prior stories and articles on Washington Bangla Radio.

For submission of your creative writing to WBRi Online Magazine, contact the editor at submissions@washingtonbanglaradio.com.


Nihar Chakravarty had woken up slightly depressed. The pain on the chest was punching him. So much to do, so much to tell the children, their spouses – his two son(s)-in-law but he knew he had very little time. So little motivation left. Yes, that was the most depressing part. The pain was getting unbearable. The visit to the doctor in the far off nursing home in the district town has not helped much. Unnecessarily, we had to cough up so much money. His eldest son was predictably disturbed. The pain would be killing and at last, Niharbabu passed on to comma. But that was it….. The journey from comma to full stop came sooner than his ‘urgent’ auto drive in the three-wheeler to the local hospital. Niharbabu had collapsed.

The news spread like wildfire in the tiny township which even 15 years back would have easily fitted as a village. His friends, relatives and acquaintances and colleagues – in the school and the town committee – came pouring in the hospital. Someone was almost dragging Niharbabu’s elder brother to the hospital. ‘Borda’ as Niharbabu used to address him sat on the steps of the hospital holding his chin on the right palm; wondering about what has happened so suddenly and quickly. “Oh my God, now I have to live with the tragedy of losing a younger brother”, wondered Borda (the eldest brother as the nomenclature suggested). His eyes had gone moist.

Everybody stood in pensive mood. This was what the environment around the hospital that evening conditioned them to think.

“He was hardly 65”, someone said.

“He would have been 66 this August,” remarked Niharbabu’s longtime associate Subir Das. A frail looking Das looked more sickly than the deceased Niharbabu lying now wrapped in a white cloth inside the ward.

There was some whispering around ….. “Niharbabu had neglected his health”. “He had an attack about 2 years back”.

“I have heard his second son had an affair…. There was lot of tension in the house”, went another.

“Is it so? I know his second son… so docile looking! His father was fond of him. Truth is often stranger”, remarked Shajal Kanungo, a gossip monger and a distant relative of Niharbabu.

§

The body was put on flame. Normal rites done ……. Slowly came the D-Day, the day of last rites. It poured incessantly the previous night. There was strong breeze blowing. The trees were making all sorts of noise. The wind swept howling around and gave the trees and towering bamboo plants adjoining the pond no peace. A soothsayer told his aging wife, “my grand father used to fear these kinds of winds on the eve of Sraddha (Last rites)…. The dead soul comes back around in the village and hides in the bush”.

The next morning: the most unpredictable thing occurred.

§

My soul could visit my town, my home!

§

I went around the arrangement. My children and wife seemed to have worked hard to organize my ‘last journey’ to eternity smoothly. There was a huge pandal for the guests to be served with lunch. There were two smaller pandals – one for doing the last rites and the other probably to feed the Brahmins – the greedy lot!

Why my sons have to do this? I never believed in all these. I was an agnostic kind of person….. but look at these shows. All my children knew my dislike for all these. Oh, their mother must have insisted on this. After all, she was my ‘life partner’ for about 30 years.

Sitting in a corner, I could get a glance of her. Predictably, she was weeping. Everyone around was trying to comfort her. My children, their spouses, my colleagues and what’s this – even my school headmaster and boss of many years, Shaibal Sen.

Shaibal Sen rubbing his hand gently over my wife’s head and slowly…. the gutsy shoulder. This crook was always eyeing Banalata. I distinctly remember, once he had said, “your wife’s name Banalata itself is like a current volt….. some poetry in it…. You know what does it mean?”

As he was my boss, I tried to be gentleman…. Or else I would have shown that son of a dog, what’s real ‘bhadrata’ is. I had simply gazed; then to top it all, Shaibal Sen had asked, “did you like her name or physique more”.

The word or name Banalata, as I understand stood for ‘jungle tweeds’ but over the time the name has become a symbol of feminine mystery, beauty and love. Thanks essentially to Bengali poet, Jibanananda Das’s celebrated title work: ‘Banalata Sen’.

Now, I knew, sleazy Shaibal Sen was making opportune use of the moment. I wish Shaibal Sen’s dominating wife walks in just now. The fellow would get a public thrashing!

Then, I saw my two sons walking in towards the pandal designated for performing the last rites. My poor two souls….. How much they would miss me. My exit was sudden.

It was like the sudden shut down of a computer or rather the laptops, both my sons use. The virus had penetrated and shut down the system without notice. The anti-virus was not updated, I suppose.

But in human stories; no amount of updating helps. It is what I call, humanity’s biggest mystery….. Flirting with Failure. Human lives have been going through all these generations after generations and even civilizations after civilizations.

I saw in the corner where my wife was seating; two of my daughters trying to console their mother now. Both are married. Their husbands stood dutifully at a safe distance. The eldest son-in-law much closer to his wife … may be ever ready to take her orders. We all liked him most. My wife Banalata often said, “our son-in-law, the eldest Jamai, Bikram is better than many sons”.

Hiding behind the make-shift bamboo pole, I try to gaze in on his face. It looked sombre. After all, he has lost his father-in-law. Affectionately, he called me ‘Babu’. But the more notorious was my second son-in-law. He never called me ‘Babu or Baba’.

This egoistic male chauvinist, I have often over heard him telling: “chhele-der ektai baap hoi … (Sons have only one father)”. He always thought big of himself, his profession, his family and worse his father, a retired army official…. Colonel or something.

I wonder, how could, my younger daughter fall in love with this silly character.

I always thought, he was good for nothing. I remember even telling angrily once to my second daughter, “Bubu, your husband is only good in arguing. His illness is his ego. Tell him, he should never come even for my last rites”.

But the fellow has come and was seemingly running here and there helping out to organize my last journey. To me, he pretended to be a specialist in every branch. Would lecture people on all issues and more than lecturing, he would find fault with. His razor sharp tongue!

I was not quite sure, whether my poor Bubu was happy with this man, son of the Colonel. However, I have overheard them - as husband and wife normally talking of romance or holidaying in Nepal or Goa. But that son of colonel instead once took my daughter to Gaya, where people normally visit to conduct only last rites.

A freelance writer, he would describe himself. My second son-in-law did talk on domestic issues. But the conversation would often go around, my failure to inculcate certain values in my Bubu. “As a wife, she does not know how to respect her husband and his feelings,” he would often scream. I never approved of his statement. But occasionally the conversation sailed off to the shores of literature and politics as well. Here too, he would mock at me: “the Left has been shown the door in Europe…. Now it is the turn of Bengal”.

The politics of Bengal enthralled him post 2007 and he always rejoiced at the Buddhadeb regime’s failure to industrialize either Nandigram or Singur.

Standing under the roof of the verandah and staring at my last rites, probably he is still thinking about my leftist ideologies and how highly I adored them. But I am sure; he would not understand anything of these.

Suddenly, my concentration on that good for nothing son-in-law was disturbed by the surr surr sound of the bamboo broom, then splashing of water with the green pipe, I had bought for Rs 60 just the other day. All these made an unpleasant medley. I was wondering, while this green water pipe has remained as inherent part of the family, as its owner I have been pushed out to the periphery. The ceremony would push me out further.

Slowly, I would lose my importance and then even vanish from their memory. I thought of running away from the spot into the jungle and bushes. Why that windy breeze and severe rainfall brought me down to my courtyard. I was happy away.

Just then the Purohit sat on his chair and directed my two sons to perform the rituals. There were some Mantras uttered…..

“…Asmat Pita …..Teelodakam ..GangaJalam Vaa Tasmey Swadha Namah, Tasmey Swadha Namah, Tasmey Swadha Namah.”

I knew the entire purpose was to chase me away. Suddenly, I remembered a quote often told by my grandmother during my heydays and perhaps also hers: “between a wolf and a hunter, it’s not the wolf who chose the hunting ground…. It’s the hunter”. So the priest was trying to be a hunter.

I stared at my two sons. Loving boys. The inheritors of my and my family legacy. They were religiously performing the rituals. The eldest one was doing the major work as he had the special privilege.

He was born on a rainy morning in the last week of December. Banalata had never forgiven me for the ill timing. Well, that was my first shot at fatherhood. How would I know, something I dole out in April-May would herald so much trouble time for her in December.

Subsequently, in all three occasions, she was always cautious “nothing doing in April-May moshai… No amount of air conditioner would convince me”.

Banalata was methodical about many things in life.

Like others, she too was a nagging wife. She would be a critic both of my habits and my inability to comprehend many things about the children and their ‘generation next’ approach. On my part, I would dismiss her criticism, but unwittingly I did value them but yet again they were hardly followed by corrective steps. As a humble school master and not well paid situation like mine, I ought to be grateful to Banalata for coping with me all these years. Nearly 30.

Despite my oft-repeated screaming at her and disallowing her to visit her parental home when she was younger and her parents were alive, Banalata did help me through the trying time. I never found her as a passive partner, but she often created an at home easy going atmosphere. She ensured her cooking was always good so that her children and their father did not complain about that. Making some extra money by giving tuitions or working for the town committee during extra hours often demanded that I am left to myself. Banalata would slog uncomplaining, pick up vegetables from Monday Haat, call the plumber or fetch the atta packet herself.

All these thoughts again dragged me towards my wife. Now she was bowing folded hands before my photo placed on that tiny tool, she would often squat underneath sun during winter days. Probably, I could feel her touch. Good old touch. Something quite familiar. Shamefully, I tried to take a closer look at her back. The two buttocks still looked tight. And why not? She was hardly 52. About 12-13 years younger to me.

My sons were following the instructions of the priest. The fat Mukherjee Purohit must be eyeing at things those lay around my framed photograph. Bags full of rice, five large baskets of vegetables, towels, dhotis, mustard oil and also Cholesterol free refined oil of a big brand. Cot, bedding and even sandals. All were being offered to this greedy fellow in my name!

“Samay toh thakbe na go ma, kebal mo go katha robey…..” (Time would not wait for anyone….. only thing that remains what we speak and tell of each other)… the popular Shyama Sangeet song in reverence to Goddess Kali by Pannalal Bhattacharya was being played in the neighbourhood. I could not question the timing.

These thoughts were bound to be first person and melancholic at least for me. My thoughts then sprang quickly towards my second son, Prabir.

Why this docile and introvert kid of mine had to fall in love with a Christian girl? So what, I was a leftist in thinking? I too had to face the society. How could I face a question: ‘Mastermoshai, Ki Holo (What happened sir, we just came to know about your second son’s marriage)?

So without my knowing; I had also opposed his marriage to that girl. Prabir had argued violently. As he was youngest, he was the pampered among the lot both by me and Banalata. We never expected this from him. A progressive boy he is, Prabir tried to argue. Banalata silenced him. I tried to reason.

“Karl Marx and others never faced the kind of problem, we Hindus faced in this country. From nowhere Christians came and started converting us. Christianity to me is something western, more of a political tool to suit the colonizers and not the religion as ethically propounded by Christ. Christianity is alien to our culture. Christianity teaches about giving away one coat, if you have two….. But is that happening? Which Indian Christian has followed that teaching? They even claim reservation as Dalit Christians?”

The pain in the chest was palpable. I knew, something was going wrong. Probably, Prabir too understood and he took me to the city nursing home. His elder brother came in later. My elder son has been a pragmatic marketing executive. He knew the futility of spending money after me. Thoughts of gain, profit margin, cost cutting subordinated everything in his life.

These left me scared. Now, that I am gone and Prabir would walk away with the Christian girl what would happen to Banalata. For the first time since my re-visit to the house as a ‘soul’ I started regretting. I was worried about Banalata.

Suddenly, I was cursing myself. What did I do? I had always told Banalata that she should go away before me. “The kind of half-brain you have, I pray you should die before me. All alone without me, you will be left nowhere. Your children cannot cope with your foolishness”, I had told her many times in these last three decades. But what have I done? What did I do in this life? What did I do in death? Left Banalata deserted. Somewhere I used to hear: political class cursing my leftists brethren. – Left has left us in the lurch. I too had left Banalata.

Was I a good husband? My children, I knew, could not think of their mother as anything more than someone who cooked and ran the kitchen administration. The Mantras were still on. Hawan Kund was burning. My time has not yet come for salvation!

I look for cover in the bushes behind the kitchen….. may be I will be hiding there permanently and keep an eye on my Banalata, who is bound to fend for herself all alone in that spacious kitchen feeding the armies of our children and their families.