SONAJHURI: Prelude - A Novel by Santwana Chatterjee | WBRi Online Magazine

"Sonajhuri" is a serialized English novel by Santwana Chatterjee published in WBRi Online Magazine section. Each episode has links to previous and next episodes.

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A Novel Santwana Chatterjee


It was a dusky September night. I was looking out of the window, trying to figure out whether it was dawn or dusk, my eyes heavy with sleep and silence all-round me, as if some one has died. My heart missed a beat and then started beating heavily as soon as the thought crossed my mind; of course some one is almost dead, a very special someone.

I thought of a similar night long back in SONAJHURI in the early fifty’s.  The news came that father was very seriously ill and was fighting death in a hospital bed in far away Mumbai. Myself and Bumba started our special prayer. It was a secret between us that we prayed to God in extreme distress for deliverance. We hoped God would listen to us, as in many past cases, like when, our pet Sam got lost and after two hours of earnest prayer he was found in the backyard of our neighbor Mr Sujan's. Or the time when I was down with fever and the marriage ceremony of Manu aunty was near the corner. So on and so forth and each time He listened to us; but not this time. May be we were not earnest enough, may be God understood the hollowness of our prayer. I was too young to understand that it was not fair to equate one’s earnestness with someone else’s life, but that was how I felt and I was drowned with grief and remorse. At that age I was not even completely aware of the concept of death, its enormity, its finality, its cruelty and the devastation it brings with it . Bumba was still fast asleep beside me and I tip-toed out of our bed crossing the space with caution and out into the veranda and stared at the figure in white almost leaning out of the railings and panic gripped me like never before. Ma please don’t, I cried out involuntarily and ran to her; embracing her soft body, putting my face into her tummy and crying uncontrollably. I did not know why, but it seemed to me that she was going to jump the railings. In the morning, though, we knew that he was alright and it was all my sordid imagination and a bad dream, kind of a nightmare. I dream a lot and dream stories. Things that I read or talk about always come back in my dreams. My dreams are often coloured, when I am happy and black and white or grayish when sad.

I looked out of the window and the images flashed before my mind’s eye like it was only yesterday and not a good fifty  years back. There was same kind of heavy feeling inside but this time it was of certain and imminent death. The nursing home authorities have noted down our number and would give us a ring when finally everything would be over. He had been put under life-support for the past four days and for all practical purpose already dead, but he would be officially pronounced dead only when the ventilator declared him so, unless something miraculous happened, which I did not expect. He had been put   under ventilator after the sever attack four days back and I had noticed that his beard stopped growing since his last shave four days back before he was put to the ventilator . Rita and Ramu, my children were sleeping in their bed, their father, my husband Ramesh was out of Kolkata with office work.  I switched on the night lamp and touched them one by one, softly and lovingly. Poor children, they are going to lose the solid rock that promised to protect them from the waves and currents that life sends, the scorching heat that cruel society pours on the less fortunate. They are going lose their friend, philosopher and guide in the form of their beloved Bumba-mama.  Bumba remained unmarried and dedicated his life for  Ramu and Rita.  He cared for my children so much, that if it were possible, he would have adopted them  A dog started barking  down the street  and  the bark turned to howling, like he was crying his heart out.  I shivered involuntarily; I knew it meant nothing, but still I felt a chill  going  down my spine.  I looked up to the ceiling and made designs in the dark. My mind went on rambling.

Each moment in our life we are inching towards death, the only logical end to life, the ultimate truth and oh it is so contradictory. We are born , so we should die. Anything that is made is perishable but how can it go ad infinitum. There must be something that was not created, some intelligence that was not created, something without a body. I feel so strongly that there is this intelligence governing every thing, all pervading, all pervasive and all knowing intelligence. The feeling is so strong that it almost becomes tangible at times, the feeling, I mean. Look at the universe, look at science, think of the infinite space, don't they all point to a super intelligence that is working through it all. The design, the perfection, the intricacy , each points towards an intelligence that guides it, that created it and put such a design in it's creation that one day it would automatically lead to its destruction. What else could I do, there was no hope left and I could not even pray for a miracle.

Again my mind started making cobwebs in the air. I do not know why I should write and why should I want people to read it. It might be quite natural to try and keep in writing the various thoughts that crowd my mind, so that, in a different space and different time I may go back and re-experience what I felt once upon a time, but the deep urge within to share it with stranger’s points to our inherent insecurity for this fragility of life. We know we will be here for only a limited time and we definitely do not want to vanish into oblivion once we become none entities and thus we wish to be remembered through our words our writings, our stories and poems. Is it all ? Is'nt there some thing more to it. Only creative people, politicians or serial killers are thus subject to public exposures ' but what about the rest ! Do they not hanker after some sort of permanency ! Bumba did not it seems, he did not write anything, did not marry and did not leave any legacy behind. But ofcourse they do, and may be that is why they become fathers and mothers to be remembered through their offspring. It is no secret that the enlightened, the seers don't really care for recognition or publicity of any kind . Why is that - how can they be so stoic ; what have they seen that gives them so much peace, so much satisfaction, so much bliss that makes them so great ! I wish I knew ! But at the same time I am afraid of knowing something that would make me indifferent to all the pleasures that life offers even indifferent to life itself. It might sound like "grapes are sour..." but really, believe me , that is exactly how I feel. I feel awe whenever I think of this vast universe with its infinite space and time engulfing us, like grains of sands, yet appearing so important to ourselves. The universe is so magnanimous to allow us to feel so important, however small we are, giving us everything in abundance. In comparison, how selfish and how smug we are that we consider us superior and godlike and treat the ants and insects, with disdain and scorn at our mercy, forgetting that a man and an ant are the one and the same to the universe excepting that a man has a brain, all the more reason to realize that there is no place of pride considering his own humble condition.

Now it was almost three in the morning or may be an hour more , but I could not go back to sleep, waiting for the call to come. Suddenly breaking the silence of the darkness of the night into thousand pieces the telephone started ringing making me jump out of my bed. The call has come, the call has come, I cried out involuntarily, as if I welcomed it.  But it was a wrong number.

I was rudely shaken out of my stupor by the telephone ringing second time in a row. I was too shocked to take it any more; no I can’t accept the inevitable,  not now.

Ma, why are you not picking up,  take the call , Rita called out from her bed. She was sitting wide eyed on her bed, visibly scared. And I took the call. This time the call came from the hospital and a steely voice announced the worst and called us over to the nursing home.

Any way that night after hearing the news I called Ramesh and broke down. Rameshl did not try to console me ; nor did he showed any emotion. He just said  “I will be there before  this evening Rina.  Just wait  for me”.

Ramesh took the next flight home. He knew how I felt; as if one of my hands had been severed and taken away from me. As for my children, they were still too young to realize their loss in totality. Ramesh was an exceptionally understanding husband and though he would often tease me for meting out step motherly treatment to him in comparison with Bumba, he loved Bumba, his childhood friend equally dearly. Bumba had always been shy with women and he avoided them like plague. Excepting Meenakshi he never had been closely associated with any one of the opposite sex other than on a strictly official term   He did not listen to father and flatly refused to marry, and father did not dare  to pursue the matter further. We, I and Ramesh tried our best to find a match for him but in vain. Bumba would say, ok, you want to get rid of me. So I would move out and stay on my own, but never speak of marriage.  After my marriage daima moved with us and Bumba to our flat. She  had become frail and ailing but still she took care of my children till she lived.

No no, I must stop day dreaming and concentrate on my immediate task.

I  fumbled for  the car key and finally could separate it from the other bunches and  went down. I realized that my hand was shaking and my feet seemed too heavy, but I could not care less, it is no time to act silly. Ramdeen, the night guard appointed by the society came running.

“What it is madam. Where are you going at his hour, that too alone? “

I told him and he totally refused to  let me drive  and  called the other guard .

“Manilal, you look after the gate, I am going to drive madam to the hospital.” I did not try to desist him, for I realized how  helpless and tired I felt and how relieved to find some one to help in my darkest hour”. The dawn was slowly breaking and darkness melting steadily into a golden new dawn . I thought with a pang in my heart that  Bumba would never be with us to see the new day.  This was nature , heartless, cruel, indifferent , going its own way, not looking back, not waiting for anybody or anything.  This was time, once gone is gone for ever; it is irreversible, eternally running alongside the endless space. Somebody aptly described it – time and tide waits for none. So whatever you want to do, do it now, whatever you want to be, try it now, whatever you want to say, say it now.

One or two taxis had started downing their meters. I saw people jogging or walking towards the Dhakuria Lake, as Bumba would have done, if he was alive.

The hospital was fully awake, I wonder if ever they sleep. In the hospital bed Bumba lay tall and huge looking at peace with himself almost smiling. His skin had turned somewhat ashen and lost its glow. I touched him and his ice cold skin gave me the shock of my life. He can’t be called back, he won’t hear me, and he is gone, gone for ever. I didn’t know what happens after death and I never cared before but now I hoped fervently that there is an afterlife and once there he would be able to hear my unspoken words and feel the affection that I held inside me always. That there remains nothing after death, was such a scary though, that against my reason I wanted to believe that he was still there for me, in some other form, in some other way, in some other corner of this universe.

When I watch a movie in a theater or in the television; or suppose watch a video clipping of a family gathering, I have a strange feeling, as if these images were there before and will remain there in the universe, independent of the cds or the reels or of the viewers, for ever and ever into the eternal space and time. It is a kind of feeling that comes back to me day in day out, as if there is a super computer encompassing everything, all images comes from it and melts into it. I get confused about the relation between a thing and its image. An object can have its image, even before it comes into existence, in the creator's imagination and the image would remain even after the object is destroyed, in so many ways , like a picture, a video or simply as a memory. Does it not sound strange and self contradictory. But , on the contrary, we know space and time exist and they are eternal....but can we imagine what it really is.....

Space and Time is only a concept which engulfs everything in the universe. If the universe is a reality then space and time must also be real; but then, is a concept as real as a physical object. But some philosophers say that the universe is only a hallucination but the question bothers me is whose hallucination is it! If there is a brain that can imagine the universe then is it that the brain is independent of its imagination/hallucination, i.e. the universe.

But space is relative to the object that occupies it. We talk of space that we occupy or that which separates us, then how can we say that space both limited and endless.

The space  that Bumba occupied will be empty from this day, but would it really? Is not the space imprinted in my memory as an image, which I will repeat in my mind time and again.  The time that I spent with Bumba had not been lost they were in Bumba’s mind before, now it will stay in my mind till I die, and then it would be captured in my words in print. Would it?

Each moment in our life we are inching towards death, the only logical end to life, the ultimate truth and oh it is so contradictory. We are born , so we should die. Anything that is made is perishable but how can it go ad infinitum there must be something that was not created, some intelligence that was not created, something without a body. I feel so strongly that there is this intelligence governing every thing, all pervading, all pervasive and all knowing intelligence. The feeling is so strong that it almost becomes tangible at times, the feeling, I mean. Look at the universe, look at science, think of the infinite space, don't they all point to a super intelligence that is working through it all. The design, the perfection, the intricacy , each points towards an intelligence that guides it, that created it and put such a design in it's creation that one day it would automatically lead to its destruction.

Every thing in this universe points towards a dichotomy, like life and death, white and black, true and false and most prominently He and She, the route to all creation. She creates the baby and holds it inside her but not without His help. So it seems the intelligence alone could not create the universe, unless it is , as the Vedanti's says, only a Maya or Illusion. But even then it remains to be answered - Maya to whom, illusion to whom and the dichotomy begins. So it seems the illusion which appears before me is "my illusion" and therefore there need be only "I" for the experience, the illusion being a non entity. So we may presume that "The Universe" including us is only an illusion to the one and only intelligence. But it is rather hard to digest. So I would now take rest and try to think logically that I am only an illusion and that to an illusion to me only.

It is strange that anything that we have is limited but without the concept of unlimited, how can there be limit. I go on thinking and thinking on this 'unlimited' concept and it appears that I can only believe or accept it as a true concept and can not really reason it out, as we ourselves are only limited being with everything about us being perishable and it seems only natural that everything can never be destroyed for out of nothing something could not come out and something can never become completely and absolutely nothing. Whoops... if we burn a tree , it becomes ash and particles and of course it's form changes but science says it does not become "nothing." When and if, the whole universe is destroyed, what would remain of it ! more specifically what of the infinite space and infinite time, to which the universe belongs. Scientifically speaking the universe, if destroyed , would only change its form and would remain in some form or other in the infinite space and time. And many many billions and trillions of years later may be new universe would emerge, but , we would have to admit, throughout all these process of being, destruction and recreation, runs a design, that needs an infinitely intelligent and scientific consciousness and every steps, every minuscule point is detailed to perfection and how can that be possible if there is no intelligence running through the process!!

And one more thing to ponder about, the infinite time and space, we must remember space and time are there so long there is something to occupy space and time; and once everything is destroyed, so would be space and time, but the fact remains according to science that nothing is absolutely destroyed but only changes it's form only -so even if the universe , at a point of time, is totally destroyed, it would still remain in some unknown form and that form would require some space and also some time as well to continue in that form until it is transferred into some other form and ad infinitum and thus goes on infinite time and space.

At the hospital when I looked at his body lying on his hospital-bed and suddenly a thought crossed over my mind. Only last August during one of our usual arguments I stopped in the middle and had a clutching feeling in my chest, in the near future one of us would not be there for the other. Who would it be! I felt a surge of affection draining out of my system. We have become so used to each other, it seems that we shall remain together for the rest of our lives but that would not be the case, we came alone in this world and likewise are destined to die alone. I always kept my affection inside. I felt somewhat shy of expressing it with a warm hug.  May be I was always a little withdrawn, but I knew the necessity of expression, it would be too late someday, while I would be gone or others might leave. I remembered what grandpa said long ago, always express the love that you hold in you for others for who knows whether  God will give you a second chance or not.  And now it was too late. I won’t get a second chance to tell my brother how much I cared, how much I appreciated him, how much he meant for me.  I resolved that henceforth I shall try my best to tell my loved ones that I do care.

I always took my brother’s affection and love for me for granted, as if it was my right and his duty, giving so little in return, sometimes even hurting and neglecting him. Bumba was by my side all through his life, never leaving me, never hurting me , for ever forgiving. He had sacrificed so much , had given so much and I never bothered to thank him for it, never letting him know that I appreciated, that I cared, that he was the best brother than could ever be. Now that he was gone, I stare out into space after him for his forgiveness. I felt  a surge of motherly affection for my poor brother, the purest soul that I knew of.  Life does not give us too many chances to mend our ways and the one or two chances that come, we do not recognize, and lament afterwards.

Ramesh arranged for everything and I looked at him with a heart full of gratitude, what would I have done without him , and vowed silently to spend the remaining days in our lives in caring for him and sharing all his happiness and grief like a true friend and  wife. Now that Bumba was gone a vast portion of my space fell empty and I realized that so long I had for all practical purpose neglected this loving and forgiving man, my husband and my children’s father.

Ramesh, the good old Ramesh. He is so silent  I often missed out he was there in the room. Silent, determined, meticulous and adorably dependable, definitely the best thing that could have happened to me and  to Bumba. To get a friend like Ramesh, according to Bumba, was like getting lifelong support ,a very good investment as a brother-in-law, Bumba would tease us often.  We were such a happy family. I don’t know what good I had done to deserve such a man. Father and Rebamasi were forever grateful to Ramesh for bringing us back to them.

Next: Chapter 1 >

Santwana Chatterjee is a creative writer and blogger from Kolkata and is a member of the Tagore family. She is a prolific contributer to Washington Bangla Radio - her other writings can be found by using her name to search this web site. Her own blog is at Santwana can be reached by e-mail at santwanastar [at] gmail [dot] com.