Friday 15 July 2011

Short Story 2011 Second Prize, Purnendu Chatterjee

The Picture

Reba, Ambarish Sengupta’s wife, passed away in the evening. Forty years of conjugal life, brought to a sudden end. And yet, Ambarish did not feel sad. He was simply surprised by the suddenness of the occurrence. Ambarish’s surprise was accompanied by a feeling of unfulfilled anticipation, for he had felt he was sicklier than his wife, having developed numerous ailments after his retirement. Therefore, it was only natural that she would out live him In fact, only nine months ago, after returning home from the hospital, he had handed her all the insurance policies and the several securities. He took pains, to write in a notebook, the procedures to claim the money after his death. He had felt satisfied that he had done his duty. 

But, that was it. Returning home from the evening walk, he found the door of his room unlocked. He felt irritated and thought of rebuking her for her callousness. As he stepped in, he saw her lying on the cot, her face as pale as the moonlight that was coming down like a pall from above and covering the yellow-coloured, one-storeyed house that he had built with loans from the Government. He called her twice, ‘Reba! Reba’. She did not respond. He felt her left cheek with the back of his palm. He shrank at the touch. It was unnaturally cold. Her mouth was dribbling. He cleaned it with his handkerchief. He did not exactly remember how long ago he had touched her cheeks, her lips. Looking round the room, he saw the empty frying pan on the unlighted stove. The picture of Ganesha that she had cut from a calendar, years ago, was still firmly stuck on the wall. 

The first death in his home and it appeared to Ambarish to be unnatural, mysterious. He had left her alright and returned to find her turned to a corpse. It seemed strange to him that he was now sharing the room with a dead body. Or was it the dead body that was sharing the room with him? He tried to get hold of himself, control his thoughts. There was no point in losing himself for someone whom he had never loved. Her only noteworthy contribution to his life was that she had borne him a son. That was the only time Ambarish had felt grateful to his wife.

His son — that was how he thought of him — was his gateway to renown. It was through his son that he came in contact with a world that was glorious and golden, a world that was physically beyond his reach. The son’s career, from his early days at school to his journey across the ocean, was one streak of glory. And this petty clerk of a small Government office became known as the father who had begot such a genius. That was how he left his mark on the world, he thought. While he had lain on the hospital bed thinking he would die, he felt satisfied with the thought that if, after his death, God asked him about his contribution to the world, he would put his hand into his heart and proudly bring out his son’s picture.   

That was Ambarish’s favourite diversion. Whenever he felt depressed and frustrated, whenever his little world did not revolve to his favour, he would put his hand into his heart, bring out the son’s picture, look at it and all his frustrations and sadness would vanish. When he was rebuked by his boss for arriving late at the office and Ambarish wanted to twist his neck, he would put his hand into his heart, instead, and bring out the picture. The shower of scolding would fall upon him without making the least impression, for he was covered by the coat of invulnerable happiness that the picture provided. He would repeat the same actions when Reba brought him a steaming piece of fried fish as he hurriedly ate his meal before leaving for office. 

It was quite another matter that he had not seen his son for the last five years and not even heard his voice for the past eighteen months. Eighteen months ago he had informed his father that he would be changing his phone number. Since then he had never contacted him. Not that it was impossible for Ambarish to trace his famous son. A bleeding vein in his heart stopped Ambarish from making the effort. 

Yet he knew that the picture was in his heart, ready for use, though he had not used it since returning from the hospital nine months ago. The picture had not changed with time, he thought. It had always remained the same, the picture of his son lying on the cradle, greeting him with his toothless, innocent smile.

Now, standing in front of Reba’s corpse, Ambarish felt a desire to put his hand into his heart. But before his fingers touched the picture, he thought that he would first attend the dead. He telephoned the doctor for the formalities and informed his neighbours. Time passed in a whirl. Wreaths, garlands, boxes of perfumes, incense sticks materialized out of nowhere. Ambarish sat on a chair in a corner of the room thinking, as he had never done before, about this illiterate cook who had passed forty years with him like a shadow, unobtrusively present.

Various incidents moved across his mind at random: her shyness on the wedding night, her fear during a solar eclipse, her foolish anxiety when the doctor said that his blood pressure was on the rise. He smiled to himself as he remembered how she brought sacred flowers from the temple last week, deeply believing that those flowers would cure him of his joint pains. And then he remembered those days when she was with child. 

It was the custom that during the birth of the first child, a woman would go and live with her parents. But, he had not allowed Reba to do so. Instead, he had brought her mother to stay with her. He wanted to bask in the pleasure of fatherhood, while at the same time perform his duty to his wife. However, God knew that had a son not been born, or had the foetus met with some tragedies before its passage to the world, his sense of duty towards his wife would have been seriously tested. He had never thought of a second issue. He could not think of gambling with fate. A daughter after a son was unthinkable, a son after a daughter was always redeeming. 

Big with child she moved about noiselessly, as patient as a cow. She still brought his morning tea and arranged the clothes that he would wear for office. Ambarish saw to it, as far as he could, that his wife was comfortable. He did not keep any domestic help, because he expected the two women in the house to fend for the three of them. And then the son was born. He clearly remembered the first time he saw his son, covered in a pink towel in the nurse’s arms. 

His son. Sitting on the chair, he put his hand into his heart, but could not touch the picture. He pushed his hand deeper, but the honk of a horn made him take out his hand and walk to the door. The glass covered vehicle that would carry Reba in her last journey had arrived. He walked to it and looked inside. A cool blast of air greeted his face. The car was air-conditioned. He could hardly hide a smile thinking how nervously she had behaved when he had taken her to an air-conditioned theatre-hall, a few weeks after their marriage. Having stayed at a remote village all her life before she was married, an air-condition machine was, obviously, enough to take her by surprise. Ambarish tried to remember how long ago they had watched a movie together, only she and he. 

Five years ago that evening, when his son rang up to inform about scaling another peak of success, he had expressed his desire to celebrate the news with his wife. He planned to take her to dinner and later watch a movie together. Reba had rejected the offer outright. She had suggested that old men did not need to dance to the tune of their children; they must take care of their own health. 

A neighbour called him from inside the house. He walked in and saw in amazement how beautiful Reba was looking. She was draped in a new off-white, red-bordered saree, her forehead painted with vermillion. She had never appeared so beautiful. Ambarish sat on the chair. Was it for her that his son is so handsome? He had never thought like this before. He is her son too. Of course, she never gloated over his son’s success. She never revealed that she was proud of him. As far as his son was concerned, to her he was simply like any other child. Poor women, he thought, she had never understood that his son was extraordinary.

The moon was standing on the street when they carried her into the car. She was laid on the long seat and Ambarish along with two other younger neighbours sat opposite her. Ambarish asked the driver to switch off the air-condition machine. The two neighbours were surprised at his decision, for they felt that the closed car would become too stuffy if the machine was turned off. However, they said nothing. They thought that old uncle was finding himself uncomfortable with the machine turned on. Little did they understand that Ambarish was trying to make his wife comfortable in this last journey that she was taking with him.    

At the cemetery, it was all over in less than three hours. While Ambarish and his neighbours returned, he could instinctively feel that they were waxing inquisitive about his son. How could these people, he thought, understand what his son was doing? How could he make them understand that his son has very time for terrestrial matters, he was busy searching life in outer space. However, none of his neighbours asked him if he had informed his son. It was not that they were generously losing a chance of juicy gossip; such a question had never occurred to them.

It was late in the night that Ambarish entered the empty house. He sat on the cot on which Reba had breathed her last. A terrible feeling of discomfort gripped him. The loneliness around was choking his breath, almost strangling him. Desperate situations entail desperate measures. Ambarish put his hand into his heart. His fingers touched nothing. He pushed his hand deeper, but still could not touch the picture. Nine months of disuse, he thought, had sent the picture in some untouched niche of his heart. He pushed his hand further and as the fingers touched the bottom of his heart, he found the picture. He brought out his hand, firmly holding the picture. 

He looked at the picture and immediately felt relieved. He was not lonely, anymore. He stood up and went to the cupboard. After eating a few biscuits, he took the prescribed medicine that he had been taking for the last nine months and went to bed. He was holding Reba’s picture in his hand. Before he fell asleep, he carefully put the picture back into his heart. 

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