From the window of an old, dilapidated house, she stared below at the five children playing on the footpath encircling the old Victorian lamp post. Her dark eyes ignored their shabby dresses, uncombed hair and loud imperfect rhyming of “ring-a- ring o’ roses”. Instead, her eyes were fixed at the small innocent knots the children made by clutching each other’s hands tightly while singing the English nursery rhyme in a distorted tune. She intensely gazed at the strong bonding the children made holding hands with each other. Their broken pronunciation: “Ringa ringa roses, /Pocket full of posies /Husha busha! /We all fall down!” escaped her ears. Soon, she felt annoyed at their shrill cry: ‘we all fall down’. The children all fell down together, unlocking their hands and laughing out loud, oblivious of their lone spectator.
Arranging the anchal (the piece of long cloth that is allowed to fall from the left shoulder of Indian women) of her cotton sari, she moved her hand away from the vertical black rusted iron rods guarding the open window which she was holding. She walked blankly towards her bed, switched on the ceiling fan and sat down on her bed. The hot and humid afternoon breeze warmed up her room, making her sweat profusely. Feeling the warm gush of hot air, she rushed to the window and shut down the two wooden window leaf forcibly, restricting the scorching sun from streaming in her first-floor room. The ceiling fan cut through the strange silence of the gloomy afternoon. She rested down on her bed with eyes wide open, blankly gazing at the slow circling of the fan blades, as if, disturbed by its harsh, monotonous noise. In the darkness of the day, she longed for the oblivion of sleep. Far from nowhere, sounds of kirtan (devotional songs sung with traditional instruments praising Hindu gods during prayer) floated in her ears: “hare kṛiṣhṇa hare kṛiṣhṇa/kṛiṣhṇa kṛiṣhṇa hare hare/hare rāma hare rāma/rāma rāma hare hare”. She tossed and turned on her bed, covered her eyes and ears with a pillow. Vibrant colours flashed against her eyes. She closed her eyes tightly pressing her eyelids hard against each other. A procession of images and weird sounds consumed her; all known, nostalgic. She soon felt numb and too heavy to turn sides on her bed.
When she woke up, it was all dark and silent except the whining noise of the late midtwentieth century ceiling fan. All the long nine hours, the fan laboured to keep away the dead silence prevailing in the room and tried to provide her with the best comfort possible. She woke up with a terrible headache, powerful enough to etherise her for another eight hours. However, she somehow managed to trudge to the window and open its teak leaves. It was a no moon night. The dull sky did not allow a single star to peep out from behind the dense clouds covering up the sleeping city below. The trees, buildings, people, vehicles were all swallowed up by the profound darkness. The vastness of the city, from earth to the skies, was lost in all black; so much soaked in black that even her eyes failed to penetrate the darkness; the darkness that became ubiquitous, touching infinity. She tried to compose herself by the window. Against all the darkness and silence around, she remembered the strong bonds among the children who were playing on the footpath that afternoon. Their faces faded away from her memory, and so did their broken rhymes. Ashwin’s words echoed in her ears: “our city lives on the streets; we should treasure this lively-rich-pedestrian-city”. She kept murmuring Ashwin’s name till the looming headache hit her hard. For a fraction of second, everything seemed like a dream.
The screeching of an owl from the parapet above interrupted her flow of thoughts and the overpowering silence. Far at a distance, she could feel the Ganga (river Ganges) flowing, flowing through her very own city. Unlike a chaste goddess, she was heavy with silt and plastic, hopes and frustrations, purity and sin, carrying filth and sewage of the human race for all eternity. Alike her, tired, the river was meandering down only to meet the sea to make herself complete. She could feel a strong gush of pain creeping in within her. Tears dripped from her eyes that dried in her cheeks. Soon sobs took over the silent drops. She wiped away her tears and returned to her bed. Pulling out an old journal close to her heart, she broke down again sobbing. The handmade paper soaked up most of the painful tears messing up the blue inked calligraphy. She could feel that her world has collapsed as if someone has mistakenly put a period to her life story. Despite the all-pervasive darkness, she could read ‘Ashwin’s Thoughts.’ The words all messed up, but, her memories fresh. She could feel an elemental force rising within her. This soul force was ethereal, Avibsha seemed determined. She laid back and let consciousness go off her. Tomorrow will be a new dawn.
Every morning Kolkata wakes up to the hymn of Vande Mātaram (Literally, a song which means ‘I praise thee, Mother;’ a poem from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath (1882)) aired on All India Radio. It is not that after years of independence, even today, Kolkata continues to be very much patriotic. Still, yes, they love their heroes and their culture, what they proudly call Bangaliana (the traditional Bengali culture).
That day, the tenth day of Ashwina (The month of Durga Puja) was a bit different from the rest of the year. Kolkata preferred to wake up with the beats of the dhak (drums) if they had to wake up! The city hardly sleeps during Durga Puja. After celebrating the Navami (the ninth day of Navarati and third day of Durga Puja) night in a festive mood, Kolkata didn’t notice when the night slipped into the dawn of Vijayadasami (the tenth day of Navarati and last day of Durga Puja when goddess Durga is immersed in the river Ganga).
The situation in the first-floor apartment of ‘The Rai’s’ at 17A, Wood Street was different. Snigdha was expecting her child. It is the first time in her twenty-seven years of life that she did not go out pandal-hopping.
Was she depressed?
Why should she be?
After all, this year Maa Dugga blessed her with motherhood.
She should be happy, feel blessed.Her husband patted on her shoulders and consoled: ‘See how Navami night gave birth to Vijayadasami and we are still arguing. I am not doing anything wrong. It’s my living. Please try to understand. It will affect our child.’ Snigdha just won’t understand. ‘The Gregorian calendar marks today, the 29th of September, 1990 as Dussehra, the festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. So why can’t you earn our living by honest means?’ Snigdha continued. ‘Will honesty bring in this comfort and money?’ Dr Devraj Rai looked at her and gave a short, derisive laugh.
Snigdha held his hand to hers and pleaded, ‘Kolkata needs good doctors. You are a brilliant surgeon. People from neighbouring states come to you for consultation. The sick and helpless need you. They trust their lives in your hands. Isn’t it a reward you get for all the good work? They sell even their possessions to pay you. Isn’t all that money enough for a decent living? We can’t buy happiness at the cost of playing with the faith of the innocent’.
Snigdha knew she had the power to persuade people. With her soft voice, square motif, and considerate thinking she was quite confident of herself but wondered why her real magic was not working on her husband since she conceived. Anyway, she was hopeful. She could not remember how long their torrid discussions went on. When she opened her eyes, she found herself confined in a well-equipped birthing room. She longed for her husband but could not spot him around. Before she could even ask the nurse for Dev, she drooped down by the growing labour pain. As she closed her eyes, she remembered, on their first night Dev told her that she was a scented flower of the dessert. She felt nervous, nervous about losing everything. The excruciating pain did not allow her nervousness to overpower the throes of labour pain. She slowly faded away into the unconscious.
Outside the Operation Theatre, Dev was walking up and down the corridor. The gynaecologist operating Snigdha was Dev’s senior college mate and colleague. He knew his wife’s condition was severe and complicated but had faith in his colleague. When the gynaecologist called Dev inside the OT, he preferred to wait in the hall outside, sulking. After so many years he was alone, all alone. He could not understand whether he was confused or scared, or why did he feel so insecure. He consoled himself anyhow and sat on the sofa in the corridor outside the OT. The fluorescent lights of the hallway seemed like the rays of hope beckoning him somewhere afar. Soon he was lost in the movement of the patients, doctors, nurses and engaged himself in a conversation with his inner-self.
‘I should have accompanied the gynaecologist, but I am feeling so upset that I preferred to wait outside. Anyway, it’s obvious. Isn’t it?’
‘Maybe’ replied his conscience.
‘Why did you tell her that honesty does not bring in comfort and money?’ his conscience questioned.
‘I... I... I never had any bad intention or any dishonest motive that I needed to take care of in the seven years of my practice’ Dev stammered.
‘Then, why? Why did you say so?’
Dev tried to grope for some answer, ‘what can I do if my authorities compel me to prescribe operation? Is it my fault? I need to sustain my job as a surgeon in this city.’
‘I was frank enough to admit to Snigdha that though I treated the patients with medicine, finally, under peer pressure, I had to suggest operation. Trust me.’
‘The three patients died within a month after being operated by Dr Ghastaghir’ he murmured. ‘Am I responsible for their death?’
He sat like a helpless creature attaching the bits and pieces of the incident.
‘The patients first consulted me. I conducted several medical tests on the patients and found that all the three were suffering from some acute stomach pain. I prescribed them medicines. They recovered completely. However, within a month, all the three came together and complained of the same stomach ailment. Their further reports mentioned ‘Acute Appendicitis’. I could not understand how all three together developed appendicitis within a month. I could neither trust the report nor dismiss it either. I took up the issue to the medical board, and their decision was to operate all the three patients. Though they were my direct patients, Dr Ghastaghir, a senior surgeon in my department, intervened into the matter. I insisted on re-tests, but the board decided to do open surgery, not even laparoscopy’.
Lost in his tangled past, Dev felt the urging need to go to his office and check out the documents.
‘How can I leave Snigdha alone?’ He remained seated.
The more he tried to recall each detail, the grim, dull yet smiling faces of those three teenage boys haunted him. They were the residents of ‘Serve All Orphanage.’
‘Was I reluctant to speak up and argue with the medical board, Dr Ghastaghir, and my colleagues?’
‘As far as I can remember, I did not sign their discharge certificates, but I read them’: ‘Lap appendicectomy was done under general anaesthesia by Dr Debashis Ghastaghir (Surgeon) on 20.07.1990.’
‘But I didn’t investigate how all the proofs and records of open surgery were deleted by the medical board. Dr Ghastaghir gave me a percentage of the surgical charges, and I accepted it as consultation fees. Was Snigdha questioning my honesty for this?’
‘I am trapped.’
‘I compromised with my conscience and ethics. I became everybody. I am like everybody, nobody different. I added up to the dirt of this city of joy.’
The sun had almost completed its day’s journey. The long processions were to start with the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon. The parades will sing songs of joy on their way to the ghats (river banks) and immerse Maa Durga (Mother Durga) in the pure waters of the Ganga. The rest of India will burn big effigies of Rāvana (the mythical ten-headed demon king whom Lord Rama defeated, mentioned in the Indian epic Ramayana) to celebrate the destruction of the evil. Through the glass pane covering the corridor where Dev was seated, he caught a glimpse of the mesmerising twilight spreading across the sky outside. Dev could feel the holiness of the crepuscule. His son was born.
A month later, Dev appointed a private detective to probe into the three critical cases of Serve All Orphanage, the NGO where the three teenage boys lived.
He was shocked to learn the sordid reality. The three boys were injected with a drug that caused irresistible stomach ache. Three appendices of perfect God-given sizes went into the dustbin and their kidneys sold. The money was, of course, divided. Dr Ghastaghir, his assistant, the entire medical board, even doctors of the diagnostic centre were a part of the squalid affair. Dr Devraj Rai, fortunately, or unfortunately, was very much a part of it.
Feeling ashamed, insulted and embarrassed, he first quit his job, then his associations, and finally, sank into a deep depression.
It did not take the doctors and the social workers much time to terrorise Dr Devraj Rai. They even went to the extent of kidnapping Dev’s son, who was a toddler then. Dev had no choice of informing the police either. They took hefty money as ransom to settle the issue. Snigdha prayed to all the gods, went on fasting and sobbed loud enough till all the gods heard her prayers to return Ashwin home safe.
Everything was done silently. Neither the media nor the police smelled the stink. Else, Dev’s medical registration, passport—everything would have been seized, his son killed and he imprisoned. Nobody bothered whether Dev resigned his job or he was sacked. All were happy with his silence and the ransom money Dev paid.
Snigdha was happy that her husband is honest and her son Ashwin, back home without bruises. Dev could not escape to Chennai, Delhi or Mumbai or even go abroad with his trembling hands. He believed that these trembling hands were his gift for compromising with the values of life. Dev could not support their sumptuous living in Wood Street apartment further and shifted to his three hundred and sixty years old ancestral house in North Kolkata. With all the strength and support that Snigdha, the good wife provided him, he revamped a damp room on the ground floor and again started practising medicine. Then and ever after, Dr Dev was no more a surgeon. His mental setback never dared him back to try out his trembling hands on any patient ever.
As Ashwin was growing up, Dev returned to his first love, theosophy. When he was in London years back to clear his FRCS, he had heard about C. W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Since then, he felt an urge to read them, but his success, increasing fame, materialistic worldview and western outlook towards life never spared him to share his busy hours with his spiritual self. Snigdha had a Masters in Philosophy, but she preferred to remain a complacent homemaker with all her degree certificates filed up and locked in a cupboard. Snigdha was so obsessed with her kitchen space that she expressed her severe irritation in a droll reproach if Dev or Ashwin stepped in by mistake; years later, only Avibsha was allowed in.
Avibsha was their immediate neighbour in North Kolkata. The granddaughter of a teaplanter. When she was hardly a year old, she came in to live with her grandparents after being orphaned by the drunken lorry driver on the busy Howrah Bridge in a starry night. Snigdha cared for Avibsha like her own daughter. Dev loved narrating mythological stories to little Ashwin and Avibsha. In their teens, Ashwin did feel jealous about Avibsha being so much pampered by his parents but deep inside, he felt happy about it too and chuckled at delight in privacy.
Ashwin grew up to be a Computer engineer. Snigdha never understood what her son was studying about all ‘bits, bytes and chips’; so, she never interfered. Dev mocked him calling ‘Doctor of Absurdity.’ Ashwin had gold brains and loved technology, philosophy and theosophy. Avibsha was passionate about literature. She admired how different Ashwin was from her classmates, the men she came across, and even the characters she read about. She diligently noted down all his thoughts in her journal that she named ‘Observations Diary,’ with a silent hope that someday she might write a novel about him. After her grandparents passed away, with. No relatives to take care of the teenager, Avibsha moved in to stay with the Rai’s. She enjoyed respecting elders with fictitious names. That made her call Snigdha as Yaśodā (The foster-mother of Lord Krishna, mentioned in the Indian epic Mahabharata). Whenever Ashwin asked her for a name, she giggled at him “Secret’—you are my hero who is still a zero . . . will think of something someday.’
Still, it was all dark. When consciousness knocked Avibsha, she found that she was holding that journal—Observations Diary tight to her heart even when asleep. Avibsha promised with determination, ‘I will give you a name my hero, my life. I will write about you. With the power of your words, I’ll make the world think’.
She could still scent the fainted smell of ‘Red Power’ perfume from the pages of her diary. She felt fresh. The tears died in her lips as she smiled, ‘Ashwin was fascinated with everything about the prancing horse, the Ferrari.’
She stood up and not knowing what to do, went for a shower.
She let her anchal loose…
‘He loved shopping Adidas and Nike; wore Levi’s and Pepe Jeans; smelled Ferrari and Hugo Boss; ate in KFC and McDonald’s.’
She held her sari tight; it was Ashwin’s first gift to Avibsha with his first salary. ‘he stood by the window watching the moon for hours; admired Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo; wanted to be a postmodern Netaji perhaps!’ Avibsha chuckled. Weeping incessantly under the shower, she whispered . . .
‘Ashwin spoke of yoga, redemption, enlightenment, positive energy and so many absurd things that I never understood; left his job for theosophy, home for a dream, and perhaps the world for . . . nobody knows why.’
She stood still under the shower.
‘What a man is, no, was Ashwin!’ tears rolled down her cheeks as she fumbled for is or was.
She could smell Ashwin. She felt confident that the shower can’t wash off his smell from her body. She felt as if every pore of her skin was breathing in Ashwin. She enjoyed the shower. It was like therapy. She laughed out loud: ‘Hey Ashwin, if you want to become a sage and redeem India, you need to wear white or orange like the sadhus (Indian monks). You have to shave your head and stop munching chicken. No laptop for the rest of your life, and you need to have an ashram and disciples as well; I’ll be your first disciple, your soul mate, your devotee.’
The depth of his eyes gave her confidence; his smile, peace and his observations brought in new dimensions to her thoughts.
She spread her hands wide open and stood tip-toed under the shower.
She remembered how he hugged her tight in his arms the night before he left home.
‘You are my soul,’ he had whispered in her ears. ‘I live in your eyes and will reborn in your stories,’ he had said.
Then, she had laughed at him and comforted herself in his arms hugging him tight; but now, she understood the meaning.
Avibsha turned off the knob of the shower.
‘From now on, I am your better half . . . your shadow, your widow. I’ll wear only white alike traditional Bengali widows. Yes, in 2020, I’ll drape myself in white sarees only as a symbol of your strength and peace.’
All wet, she laid down on the bed, hugging the Observations Diary tight to her heart again. Avibsha felt their bodies snarled up in knots that can never be untied.
This time, there were no more tears but confidence instead.
Again, she fell into the oblivion of sleep.
In the last two years, Dev and Snigdha read and re-read Ashwin’s letter that he left inside their wardrobe when he left home to answer his dream in a less than an ordinary morning back in 2014.
Dear Maa, Baba and Avibzzz,
I exactly don’t remember my age since when I began to dream, to think and to feel different. I loved staring at the Moon for hours and admire its power, its chastity, and of course, its beauty. Honestly speaking, it was from the Moon I gathered the power and the strength of positive energy. Especially the ascending journey of the Moon inspired me. From a mere nothingness, it magically shapes itself up to a perfect beauty within a fortnight. I felt that it is a message Lord Krishna wants me to understand. Baba, as you narrated me theosophical and spiritual stories, stories about your life, your stay in the UK, about India and the West, I started taking on things seriously. To me, the darkness caused by the absence of the Moon in the time of no-moon resembles the hunger, corruption, materialistic greediness crippling up our country like rust. This darkness seemed like the darkness of the Universe where we all belong; we all start from nothingness and merge into oblivion, begin our lives from the earth and turn to dust.
Gradually, I began to see things metaphorically. If the Moon, sitting high above in the sky, can formulate itself from nothingness to a complete full-moon in just fifteen days, then why can’t I? First, I thought ‘completion’ means becoming rich, to be a perfect man in society, to live a complacent life. Stories of our medical days in London fascinated me. As you advised, I decided to leave INDIA soon after my engineering and do my MS abroad. Then I felt that would be being selfish. Why I don’t know. So, I joined Microsoft and stayed back in India. Since my school days, I dreamt of someone dressed in a white dhoti, repeatedly telling me that I need to enlighten myself spiritually and redeem India. I thought it over but could not tell you, Maa or Avibsha about my dreams. I don’t know why. You told various stories of our myths, sages, and mentioned that India’s biggest cultural-spiritual export is spiritual power. I appreciate it. I loved the way you defined how spirituality is above all religious biases, above all colours, borders, and knowledge. I remember you told me, ‘the truth of self is hidden in our spiritual selves’. In these days when I was quite content with the burdens of the corporate world and thought of marrying Avibsha and start a life together, I started dreaming of a sage who was showing me a hidden dimension of life. I neglected it. I kept it secret and kept on ignoring my dreams. But somehow, I lost interest in all that I was doing and felt an urging need to run away to some isolated place. I need to seek the truth about the self. I am no Gautama Buddha, but something is calling me loud to leave this temporal world. Yesterday night I dreamt of a sage with a lantern in his hand calling me somewhere in a cave in the Himalayas. I feel so connected to him as I am to all of you. I need to answer his call. I have to. But I promise I’ll come back. Soon.
Now ‘completion’ has different meanings in my life. I want to make India beautiful, beautiful like the London of your stories and the country of my dreams. A nation free from people like Dr Ghastaghir. I want to pursue spirituality for the sake of my country. India is bleeding profusely, baba, like you. I know her veins that flow her bad blood. She needs your ‘Doctor of Absurdity;’ otherwise, her very own children will trade on her organs and handicap her. I feel my guru will help me to find a way out of the morass! I know you and Maa will be proud of me, Avibsha will write about me, but I want her to write about the hidden strengths and unity one experiences in everyday life. It will empower India and help me in my motive. I’ll come back to you Avibsha, trust me.
Perhaps, God has destined me a tangled life governed by dreams that are spontaneous yet compelling.
Doctor of Absurdity
Bits, Bytes and Chips
__________________— Avibzzzz fill it when you know I am not zero.
From the very first day when she conceived, Snigdha felt divine energy growing inside her womb. The very first time Snigdha touched her son, she knew that her son would be the incarnation of honesty, piousness, and all good. From the happy moment when Dev first saw Ashwin, he knew that his son had truth in his eyes, somebody very different and very auspicious. In their own ways, they believed in the sacredness of their son and kept it secret from each other. In all these years, they experienced every bit of Ashwin together. As parents, they felt happy and proud. But since Ashwin left home, their relentless faith burnt like a candle; alight yet melting.
This past month, things turned out grim. An envelope was slipped in their main door; its white wrap only mentioned Dev’s address in block letters.
Inside, was a thin white piece of paper, in cursive handwriting it read,
To Ashwin’s Father, Mother and his dear Wife,
Ashwin is no more.
He wanted to return to Kolkata soon after a month he came here high in the Himalayas. I, his guru, did restrain him. I taught him whatever I could, and now it was time for him to leave. So, he did.
Ashwin’s Guru Ji.
Dev read and re-read it every other minute, sometimes with his glasses on, sometimes off. It made no sense.
‘Was his son dead or alive? Did Ashwin escape from his so-called guru? Were his dreams real? Why had he not called or mailed since he left Kolkata? Was this guru a fraud? Where in the Himalayas he was living? Was he returning home?’ a thousand incoherent thoughts shot through his mind. He could not trace any address or stamp on the envelope.
Snigdha was calm and felt blessed: her son would be returning soon . . . and, importantly, did not the Guru Ji’s letter mention Avibsha as Ashwin’s wife? Is it not a blessing from a divine monk? Snigdha’s positive thoughts never failed her. Her family will again be complete; she didn’t want Ashwin to be different anymore, perhaps!
Gradually, with time, waiting for Ashwin’s return for the last six months, Dev understood that his fate caught on him; he began to murmur ‘karma, karma, karma . . . it’s all my karma! If you are once trapped, you are eternally trapped.’ His murmurs died to whispers and finally were absorbed in the silence, broken only by his deep sighs.
The inevitable panic consumed Avibsha with each passing day; she locked herself in her room, staring out of the window with a hope that failed her every moment. Her strained nerves found expression in loud sobs when her heart spoke of fears and her mind, the cherished memories. Instead of staring at their photo album that locked their memories, Avibsha turned to a small piece of paper which in Ashwin’s handwriting read:
For the Liberation of My True Spirit!
I belong to this Universe, and it is my responsibility to contribute to the evolution of the Cosmos! My body, made up of cosmic dust, is limited to this cosmic palindrome.
My soul is free
My mind, unleashed!
A new morning, a new day, a new life after all . . . It’s all green, and then the blue rises in waves, then the reddish sky. . . the specks of light still hanging from the lamp posts fade against the holy skies. They prove nothing but the strength of their struggle stories in murmuring voices. Far from all these, living things curl up, roll and come out of the wet soil, the dung-beetle stir the stillness of the moisture around, breathe the very air that the divine and the creative breathe in. Far at a distance, Avibsha could see Ashwin standing, dressed in all white, frail yet glowing with a magical aura of confidence. Then, everything was a blur . . . alternating waves of happiness and numbness washed over her.
What a paradox the entire Universe is, for the being of Ashwin, his absence is needed.
Subarna De: "I am an academician, an ecocritic, and a storyteller. My works have appeared (or accepted and about to appear) in Littcrit and Gnosis, among others. I have a PhD in English Studies and write about bioregionalism, climate change and environmental literature. I also received some prestigious international grant awards for my research in environmental humanities. I love to experiment with narrative forms in my creative endeavour. "