Kula Saikia

The White Memorial

The curtain is drawn aside, I see a path of the star studded sky, the fleeting defiance of that shooting star, the huge static universe – the visible is swallowed somewhere by an invisible galaxy, of everyday happenings; it appeals to me. I feel a sensation all over me, I want time, time should freeze, like ice around me, and I, like a static matter must embrace it.

I hear some cars passing, the whistle of a train and a crashing sound that breaks in through the silence. They distace me. A cold wind blows in. The white, thin hair upon my scalp is unable to save me from it. I get up, take out a monkey cap from the almirah and put it over my head. The waters of the Brahmaputra look black. Somewhere a bhut-bhuti comes to life, it is perhaps carrying a sick person across the river, it could be a fisherman’s boat too or some miscreants are out on a nocturnal prowl. So many things happen at night, as this city sleeps. Such noises cannot stop the flow of thoughts that must take me to a final decision.

I have chosen a path after weighing everything. The last few days’ mental exercises, the statistical calculations have taught me to be more learned than what I had learned in my sixty years of experiences. They have prepared me, mentally, to go ahead with the plan, with the right perspectives. I have bound the myriad, disordered ideas into an ordered sequence, I have examined them, I have found the best possible solution.

The room feels cold. I get up, switch on the room heater, I light a cigarette. The ashtray is full with half-burnt butts, the empty match box lies next to it, like a naked statement. I had sent away  Ramesh, the room bearer, a few hours back-if I press the bell, he will reappear, I do not want that. His movements will break the quiet surroundings around me, his four-day old care will say – “It is late sir, it is better to sleep”. I will be coaxed by that business – like gesture and my beautiful plan will be upset – I cannot let that happen.

I squeeze the cigarette butt in the ashtray.

A little later, some passengers will gather at the ghat – some daily activities will swallow the silence of that ghat – people will aboard hastily, get down, passengers will jostle against each other, the ship will blow its siren, it will let go the anchor, as it were, all happenings will end, and then, the ship will glide across the Brahmaputra at a snail’s pace – as if nothing has happened – anger, envy, ill will everything will disappear in the river’s waves.

... A new park is taking shape in the nearby clearing, work is going on day and night, some hybrid roses are blooming in an oval-shaped rose garden, their ochre colours spread a romantic purity in some eyes, in the evening, children are happy riding in a toy train, they shriek with those birds in the mini zoo, boys and girls are crowding near the benches in the park, they eat fried peanuts and popcorn from the vendor and add a spice to that scene. The signboard at the entrance gate glitters in the mercury light, some try to read the donor’s name, his address, some lower their heads with respect and gratitude, a murmur rises in some hearts, ah! what a great man was Uday Bhuyan! A man who donated his life’s earnings to the public! If men like him do not contribute towards such a cause, then each evening in this busy, polluted city would be impotent. But do these boys and girls in the park know anything about Uday Bhuyan’s contributions, sacrifice, his social service? How many ponder over Uday Bhuyan’s achievements during his term of office, that contractors, politicians, officers had helped him to amass this wealth! I know, those boys and girls do not know this, society has forgotten that, there is only the legacy of Uday Bhuyan; of the boy who came to a city, worked in one office or the other and in the process, threw away all the ethics, philosophy of his youth to swim with a tide; he had seen while on a boat journey across the Brahmaputra, how the waves rise, here and there, and then finally merge with the big wave. Money came to him, he learned quickly where he should sow, to reap. And now, he wants to buy a name for himself with that money after his death – those children, those couples in Uday park will leave behind their ochre dreams upon it – what better memorial can there be? Their childhood, youth will remain plastered upon that imported signboard in Uday park ah!...

I slapped once and killed that mosquito, blood from its entrails left an ugly, red smear on my palm. The room feels warm. I switch off the heater. I know the cigarette case is empty, yet, I rummage through it, I want to pick up a half-burned butt from the ashtray and light it. I suppress this feeling, I tell myself, this is a specimen of patience. Anup and my daughter-in-law know about my plan; they have said – I should not take any decision, they will talk with a foreign firm and decide everything. If this large sum of money falls into the hands of some local men, they may cheat me; they are all cheaters. A smile crackles in my lip’s parting, Anuradha had not taken easily the fall of my ethics. I know it was an unbearable pain for her to see how my powerful values, my path-breaking speeches at seminars and meetings, had slowly vanished. I had explained to Anuradha – one should take life as it comes, if we do not accept its calling, do not merge with the other ten men in society, we will be nowhere, and, like a twig in a tide, someday, the tide will leave us upon a sand bank, and, like snail’s shells, we will lay there. Anuradha did not understand these things, may be, she was shocked by my hypocrisy, but I had not cared; I had then entered a stream of some other men and if someone found it painful that I remained in that stream, I did not pay much attention to it. I knew Anuradha would die soon, no one can survive from this kind of illness, the doctors had tried to explain it to me.

A library is taking shape with Anuradha’s books, writings, her unfinished paintings glitter in the huge building, students discuss the lines of abstract art, they read, day and night, dhrupadi literature, the history of western art. Some tease each other, have fun, behind the bookshelves, they walk out of the library, sit under the white stone statue of Uday Bhuyan, rehearse the philosophy of Hegel – Kant, tease one another, aimlessly, the girl with the short hair cut, wearing a purple sari shrieks with laughter at her expert stone throw at a crow that had let down a dropping on Uday Bhuyan’s bald head. A salika drinks at a puddle of water, flies away, feeling scared, she skirts the sky for a while and sits down on the signboard ‘Anuradha Library’ and wipes her beak.

I once called a pet salika Punu; Prodip and some other boys in the village had thrown a stone and had hurt her leg. I had   then called that limping bird Punu limper — later in college, I had called Purnima, Punu, she had not objected, in fact, that name had always brought an expression to her face – her simple face then bore the stamp of a simple village; she had wanted to educate herself, to be somebody from that village where the town folks set up camp only during elections. One bus runs through her village, everyday, there was a bridge made of two bamboo poles across the big river; she had said, no one knows, how long it would take to build a bridge over that river. After college, I did not get any news of Purnima; I had heard that she had joined a school after her father’s death.

How is she now? Have these years drawn ugly lines across her crimson cheeks? And her curly hair? Perhaps, she now thinks that I have forgotten her, the opulent wealth has thrown her out of my memory bank, those short haiku poems I had phrased with her lost in some office files. Someday I will adopt a village, the village people, a river, water, everything and take them upon my lap, I will weave a dream with those simple folks, I will teach them with my learned pride, the hymn of youth, its vitality and its vastness. I remember that wasted, empty prayer. I had discussed it, while sitting on that bench with a broken leg, an empty cup of tea before me, about a new world and new people – to Purnima these had simple easy meanings – there should be a pucca, permanent bridge on the road to her village, buses should ply there. Though we had laughed at her, I had known then that, there can be no bigger reality than this and everything else is meaningless, mere mental exercise of hypocrites and of a new generation’s useless, revolutionary slogan.

... That bridge is taking shape; cars cross it, a cowherd is fishing while he sits on that black and white railing, some important minister inaugurates that bridge, Uday Bhuyan’s bridge is dedicated to the nation, Purnima’s daughter distributes some coloured pamphlets, boys scream into the loudspeaker, the life story of Uday Bhuyan, boys from a city college participate in a bihu function in the village, at 2 am, the husori team returns crossing the bridge, they sing, a rock music troupe, a town boy replaces a punctured tyre, leans over the railing, reads the signboard ‘Uday Bhuyan Bridge’ and lets out a mouthful of cigarette smoke, of gratitude ...

Someone is knocking on the door, who could it be? – the two young boys in the next room or one of them? – want a matchbox to light a cigarette? or the foreign liquor was too strong? I have closeted myself in this room in a big hotel for the last four days, only to escape from such interruptions; I am trying to create a situation, where, I can ponder deeply. I have nothing else with me now except the money heaped in two suitcases, some bank papers; things that are now so vital to me. And tonight, I must take a decision about that chapter after my death. And once I take a decision, I will leave this room, and then, like a stranger, I will visit my house and build Anuradha and mine, our white memorial. I will entrust the job to someone I trust, and I will see before I die, the pair of stone statuettes, of me and Anuradha, our memorial built with my savings money. I must decide today which one I should select – park, library, bridge or …

Who is knocking on the door? That sound annoys me. I will open the door and tell them – I do not want such interruptions at this time of night. I walk towards the door, I open the doo.

Harsha Mazumdar collected the slips of paper, arranged the serial numbers in order and read everything at once. As an inspector for fifteen years, it was not difficult for him to arrange the whole incident – as soon as the door was opened, the miscreants attacked Uday Bhuyan with a sharp weapon, smashed his head against the table, blood spewed upon the papers, wet, red, like ink from an inkpot; the two big suitcases were left open, just as he had expected; there was nothing inside. Mazumdar searched here and there, to see, if he could find some bank papers, no, they had looted everything.

Mazumdar read everything about Uday Bhuyan, his life, his experiences, decision etc and made no comment. The policeman, the hotel manager and the boy murmured something that did not reach his ears. He told his junior officer to make the necessary, legal arrangements for the dead body and take it away; he gathered the papers, returned to the police station, carrying with him Uday Bhuyan’s diary.

Mazumdar weighed Uday Bhuyan’s plan; what should it be – bridge, park, library? What could be the right memorial for such a man? If he recovered the money from the miscreants, which was earned by foul means, which work will be proper to undertake? Which will be the right memorial for Uday Bhuyan? Something that will give a full picture to the next generation!

H arsha Mazumdar sat in the police headquarters’ room and could not decide. He searched out the address of the son and the daughter-in-law from Bhuyan’s diary and wrote a letter – they should come immediately and take charge of their father’s dead body.

Mazumdar looked at Uday Bhuyan’s photograph that fell off from the diary; it reflected clearly the man’s personality. He pushed back the chair and walked towards the rogue’s gallery on the wall nearby.

He removed the glass door and pinned Uday Bhuyan’s photograph next to those of the wanted men. He smiled crookedly, as it were, he had just now laid the foundation stone of Uday Bhuyan’s white memorial.

Translated by Rupanjali Baruah