Saturday, June 29, 2013

Headless Torso

“Headless Torso” is my  translation of the  novel , “মুন্ডুহীন ধড়” written by the late author Shaibal Mitra.  Shaibal Mitra , my Bengali teacher in Maulana Azad College of Calcutta , had exceptional authority over Bengali language & its literature. He was also an active participant during the political turmoil that had taken over Calcutta & Bengal during the tumultuous days of the late sixties and early seventies. He had to undergo imprisonment  for his “secessionist” activities during those times.

মুন্ডুহীন ধড়, ” is  part of a genre of 5 novels written by Shaibal Mitra, brilliantly capturing the troublesome times of Bengal during the sixties & seventies and is available in a book named , “পাঁচটি বজ্রনির্ঘোষের  উপন্যাস.”  “বজ্রনির্ঘোষ” loosely refers to the “announcement of the spring thunder” by the Chinese state-controlled Peking radio in the early seventies heralding the Naxalite uprising in independent India. “Headless Torso” captures the lives among college students immersed as they were in rebellious revolutionary politics, in keeping with the times. It’s written with an embedded casually-romantic spirit of an young man caught up with the reality around him. A dry & wry sense of humour is a constant companion in the original book. I have tried to keep the same spirit in every line of the book . Even the names of all common items have been retained and hence the translation might appear to be slightly strange to a non-Calcuttan reader.  For a Bengali reader, there can be  nothing better than buying the original Bengali version.    

The original book in Bengali is available for purchase here.   


               Headless Torso

                                       Chapter 1:  Inner Chamber

In the year 1961, when there were only 17,000 communists in this state, I had  purchased a copy of the “Communist Manifesto” in Bengali for a princely sum of 75 paisa. This book could be bought only from one shop in Calcutta. Enquiring  at the shop, I found out that it sold 200-225 copies of the “Communist Manifesto.” Forty years back, when being a communist meant being  under the fear of getting beaten up, it was not a mean achievement to  be selling 200+ copies of the “Communist Manifesto.” Telephones were in so few houses that one could literally count them on one’s hand. Leave aside television sets, even transistor radios were not items to be found in every home. Red coloured double-decker buses,  that had  tiger’s busts painted on the side, used to ply on the roads of Calcutta. The beautifully decked-up red double-deckers  seemingly portrayed  the presence of Royal Bengal Tigers in our neighborhood.  The minimum bus-fare was 10 paisa while it was 3 paisa in the second class coach of a tram. The meter-down fare in taxis was 50 paisa. A ride from College Street to Dakhshineswar in a taxi would cost between Rs.7 to Rs.7.50. The practice of paying extra fare over and above the taxi-meter reading hadn’t started yet. During my student days, I had once accompanied an young woman to Dakshineswar with the mistaken notion that she could be my fiancé. In the late evening, we’d taken a boat across the Hoogly  to Belur Math and then back again to Dakshineswar, where we had settled down facing each other  inside  a curtained cubicle of a restaurant and  devoured spicy Cutlets with  bottles of Cocacola. A bottle of Cocacola cost only 50 paisa. Our bill in the restaurant was near about Rs.10. I had  bought a pack of cigarettes for 19 paisa. The cheapest and also the strongest brand of cigarettes used to cost only 19 paisa for a pack of ten. I never purchased more than half-a-pack at a time although my daily requirement  was about one and a half packets. Even if I had  to share a couple of sticks with friends, I would  ensure to recover them by the end of the day. Just before reaching home at night , I’d buy my last  half-pack. Since it was not possible to pay 9.5 paisa for those 5 sticks, I’d sigh in silence every night for losing those precious half a paisa. There was a reason for that sigh. My daily pocket-money was limited to just Rs.1. 

During that time ,suddenly one day with more than a little persuasion from  Surjo Ghoshal, I had purchased a copy of Communist Manifesto. Surjo’s full name was Surjo Shankar Ghoshal. Surjo’s father, Tara Shankar Ghoshal was a famous doctor in his locality and was referred  by all and sundry as Tara-daktar. Although Tara-daktar was a mere LMF licence holder (as opposed to a regular MBBS), his reputation was unparalleled. Its widely believed that Mir Kasim, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, had gifted a sword to the grandfather of great-grandmother of Tara-daktar. By generations of inheritance, the sword had become Tara-daktar’s property and he used it as a surgical instrument to remove piles. Tara-daktar had completed 17000 piles operations in his 3 decades of practice and he was so skillful in this unusual use of the sword that patients  didn’t feel any pain during the operations. It was Surjo who had narrated this remarkable tale while describing his father’s professional success. I had good reasons to believe Surjo. For Tara-daktar was a popular person and never hankered after money. Although they were not short of money , either , as was evident from the generous way Surjo used to spend his money .

 I am not sure as to how Surjo had become a communist. Although I was six years junior to him , in College I would  look upto  him as a prominent student leader. Couple of times in a day, he would  stand on a  small stool in front of the college gate to deliver his fiery speeches. Impressed by his oratory skills, I soon became a  diehard fan of Surjo. Although Surjo was only eight years older to me, he had a grave personality, like that of a family-elder. Surjo would be dressed in a white Dhoti & a white  Punjabi. As he used to walk very fast, the end of the dhoti that was lodged in the pockets of his Punjabi would fall off frequently. In fact sometimes the  back-lock of the Dhoti would  also get dislodged. Surjo cared little. Quickly lodging back the end of his Dhoti in the right place, he’d resume his walking . Surjo generally would start off from his home at around half past ten & reach  college by noon. Surjo rarely attended classes. I wasn’t even sure of the time when he’d go back home although I could  guess that it wasn’t  before 11p.m; since I never used to be free from him till about 9.45p.m. Surjo would always hold me back late as he was neck-deep in work.

My late-night returns invited frequent rebukes from my parents. By that time , I was used to them and generally remained silent. Surjo would often pick me up even before the college had ended for the day. I would accompany him by foot  from Shyambazar to Dharmatola , a number of times. Surjo would drop by at the party office, at the office of the students’ union or at the canteens of colleges en-route to discuss plans & strategies with local leaders. A cup of tea was the  usual feature  at the canteens and in case luck was good he’d get sweetmeats like Rosogolla &  Rajbhog or salty items like Chops and Cutlets to go with the tea. Needless to say, I happily partook of my share in them. Just as I was addicted to cigarettes , Surjo was addicted to Rajbhogs. Surjo’s father Tara-daktar was addicted to Rabri, introduced to him by the maverick writer Shibram Chakrabarty. Shibram and Tara-daktar were close friends. Since ( thanks to his father), Rabri was a regular at his home, Surjo’s favourite sweet was Rajbhog. While on his daily trail from his home to college and then onwards to Shyambazar, College Street &  Dharmatola; Surjo would stop by at any big sweet shop and devour minimum four big sized Rajbhogs. Not at one go though but over two to three such stops. Surjo knew the exact timings at every such shop when  piping-hot fresh Rajbhogs were  taken off the giant woks. I wasn’t fond of Rajbhogs. Sometimes when Surjo would insist, I’d partake one. Surjo’s heart and stomach were very simply designed. As simple as a straight rain-pipe attached to a house-wall. The Rajbhogs after ingestion would swiftly reach his intestines and normally they would be excreted  in one of the three  familiar houses on the way from Hedua to Bowbazar. I would then while away my time smoking a cigarette standing on the footpath. Surjo would be back within 5-7 minutes after clearing his stomach. This was a daily ritual, often happening more than once. 

Gradually I was becoming a fan of Surjo. One day Surjo informed that he was a member of the communist party and he wants to make me a party-member too. Just when I was trying  hard to rise up to his expectations, I got separated from Surjo. Rather I was snatched away from Surjo by none other than Surjo’s friend, Uday Sen. Besides being Surjo’s friend , Uday was also his leader. It was Uday who enlisted Surjo as a member of the communist party. In a sense, Uday can be called my leader’s leader. As in  a family, the staus of Uday can be likened to a father’s father or to a grandfather. Uday was in his thirties. He was employed with Calcutta Corporation as a Ward-master. Uday’s work was to keep a record of all the garbage-trucks that left at morning from the Moulali garage of the corporation and then returned at evening. In the hot summer months, Uday would be standing in front of the garage-gate with his record-book. His head would be smeared with the juice of Keshut leaves. Uday was losing hair like nobody’s business. He was as worried about the purity of socialist ideology as he was with his hair-loss.  Uday would stuff me with stories that Surjo was not only a fake communist but also an agent of the capitalists and a police informer in disguise. He gave indisputable proofs to substantiate his stories.  When it rains in Peking, real communists would always leave home with an umbrella but Surjo never did. That was the first proof. Instead Surjo would roam around  the city with his dark sunglasses whenever it was sunny in Moscow. All those who followed Soviet Russia over China were fake communists & informers of the police.

Uday’s reasoning had substance. His second proof was about Surjo’s fondness with Rajbhogs. The name of the sweet as such gave  ample indication that it was the food of the ruler-cum-exploiter class. If the sweet was named as Janatabhog, then there would have been nothing to complain about.

Irrefutable logic! I didn’t have any other option but to accept it. I believed Uday and  ended my relationship with Surjo. I still hadn’t read the communist manifesto that Surjo had advised me to buy. Actually, I was overawed by the “Introduction” chapter  of that thin book . The “Introduction” chapter  ran into 33 pages covering all the seven editions that had been published till then. The main part of the book followed the introduction. But I did read the first line “The history of all societies is always a history of class-struggles”; as well as the last  line ,” Proletariats have nothing to lose but their chains.”  Whatever I had understood from those two lines was enough for me to declare to Surjo that I had read the manifesto and had found it extremely meaningful.

Surjo was happy to hear my words. The first and the last lines of the manifesto were known to him too. In each of his speeches, Surjo would mention those two lines. Occasionally Surjo would also tell me those two lines. It wasn’t long before I followed his path. Just as made-up lines spoken repeatedly appear as  absolute truth to an orator, the same phenomenon happened to me. An idea, that the complete manifesto had been memorized, got embedded in my psyche. When I would talk about the manifesto for half an hour without a break, even Surjo used to get impressed.  Hardcore socialist theoreticians would shower praises on  my knowledge. Some among my old friends who  knew about my actual academic abilities started avoiding me. Some would snigger behind my back calling me an idiot.

But by that time my fan-following had increased by such an extent that I cared little about who was silent or who abused me. I was realizing that it wasn’t going to be long for me to become a real communist. My new guru, the record-keeper of corporation’s garbage-trucks, Uday Sen would frequently remind me so. Right at that moment, an incident shook me up completely .

Round about two years prior to that incident, there was another man who had accompanied me to the shop that sold the communist manifestos. He was Arindam. We were batch-mates in college. Arindam was an introvert and spoke very little. That evening along with me, Arindam  had also bought a copy of the communist manifesto as well as three more books of varying sizes. The subject matter of all the books was similar; related as they were to socialism. Arindam knew Surjo but unlike me he was not Surjo’s disciple. Rather he tactfully avoided Surjo. I didn’t have any idea about Arindam’s guru or whether he had any at all. But he would mention Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s name with respect. Within a month of buying the manifesto and the other three books, Arindam had finished reading them and would regularly hustle me to sit together  for a discussion. I would buy time by giving one excuse or the other. As preparation for the discussion, he had even given me the other three books, besides the manifesto,  to read. Although I had casually flipped through those books before dropping them in my Jhola, I had hardly found time to read them.

Arindam was more intelligent than me. More honest and frank too.  Soon he   understood  that my reading was limited to my text books. He was disappointed and  never again mentioned  to me about the dates for discussion. But when he realized that eighty percent of the party-members had similar knowledge as mine, he was dumbfounded. Whenever he came across in the college, he’d gaze at me from behind his thick eyeglasses for a moment and walk away. With cringing  uneasiness, I would mutter to him , “we need to discuss, let’s sit together, soon.”

I could barely hear his reply. I understood later that in Arindam’s presence some of my five senses stopped functioning.  Since I realized that till I finish reading the manifesto & the other three books, my senses would not regain their natural functions; I started arranging the books in order to read them. Just then the “food-movement” erupted across the entire  state of West Bengal. That was a tumultuous time. Leftist leaders, half-leaders started filling up the jails in the state. I too was jailed for a fortnight. While reading a newspaper in the Alipore jail, I discovered  that Arindam has been killed in police firing at Uttarpara. When I was getting to be  sure  of the fact that the “college-student Arindam Sanyal” mentioned in the paper was actually my batch-mate; news of a death of another Arindam at the hands of police in Krishnanagar was published within 24 hours of the first news. He too was a college student but his surname was Bhowmik. While I was getting riddled whether my friend’s actual surname was Sanyal or Bhowmik; the next-day morning paper arrived with the news of a death of another Arindam in the Medinipur town. Although this last  news item didn’t mention his vocation or surname, it did indicate that his age was around 20-21 years. By this time , almost 37 people had died in the food movement. I wasn’t sure whether anyone else other than myself had noticed that there were three dead men with the same name. When I mentioned this to my cell-mates in the jail, they were surprised but didn’t pay much heed to it. That was the first time, I had a brain-wave erupting  in my head. I realized that the path, that I had travelled along with Surjo Ghoshal  while gorging on  Chops, Cutlets & Rajbhogs from Shyambazar to Bowbazar, didn’t necessarily end at  the three toilets along the way. I was praying deep inside that my college-mate was not one of the three departed  Arindams. A discussion with him regarding the communist manifesto & the other three books was still pending . He has no right to die before the discussion was over. I will read all the four books,  once I’m released from the prison. I will read them just as seriously as I have read text books; by shutting myself in  my room and by staying awake all night.

Even though  I wasn’t aware if Arindam was dead or alive; his ghost was all over me during the last seven days of my stay in the jail. That ghost  which doesn’t have any shadow. Not dead but a live ghost. They reside within living people. Sometimes they surface and surprise others. And then they vanish in thin air. People rarely remember incidents where they see such ghosts. I was reminded during my stay in jail of two more such incidents where I had seen Arindam’s ghost. Arindam’s ghost  was then wearing a light yellow coloured Poplin shirt with the sleeves rolled up over a white cotton Dhoti. I was taken aback on seeing Arindam’s ghost, twice. First time it happened  when he played the tabla accompanying Kalpalata’s vocals during a cultural function of the college. While the second incident occurred when he had flawlessly recited thirty-five slokes from the Gita, starting with “jada jadahi dharmashya,”  the seventh sloka of the fourth chapter till the very end. He was reciting the slokas at the weekly  prayer class of the Christian college. Although his voice was drowned amid the chorus of “O God, give us today our daily bread” inside  the big hall of the Christian college; those who were nearby heard him clearly. I was one of them. On my right was Daniel Srinivasan of the fourth year, in front was the fresher Stephen Anadi Mondol but I don’t recall now who was behind me. Although they were irritated to hear someone reciting slokas during a biblical recital, they neither stopped praying nor did they look at him. At the end of the prayer , they had quietly left the hall. I didn’t realize that Arindam was reciting slokas from the Gita. I hadn’t read Gita. How many college-students have read Gita anyway? How many read Gita even after finishing college or university studies? Gita need not be read as a religious book; it can also be read as a chapter of the Mahabharata. If one reads the Gita, the Koran or the Bible only for the sake of reading ; it’s very difficult to stop once having started.

Those were not my words but Arindam’s. The taciturn Arindam had told me so in private. My sighting of the ghost happened when I was shocked to hear an ordinary classmate of mine recite Gita at the Bible class. That was the second time. The first time I saw his ghost was three months prior to this incident during an evening at the college cultural function. It was a competition of Hindustani classical vocals among college students. Some of them were real talented vocalists. They had brought  along with them their own musical instruments. Harmonium, Taanpura and also their own tabla-players.  Kalpalata’s turn was third in that event. During her fresher year, she had won the first prize in classical vocals. Even in competitive events featuring songs from Nazrul or Tagore, she was the number one. After her name was announced, the hall fell completely silent. A student carried her harmonium & the tabla  to the stage. Kalpalata’s friend, Bonani went up carrying the tanpura. Everybody was awaiting Kalpalata to take the stage with her tabla player. Seconds ticked by. The judges were whispering among themselves. Impatient listeners were clearing their throats. At the backstage, it was a dramatic situation. Kalpalata had tears in her eyes and was unable to even speak. Her  regular tabla player, an Ustad, hadn’t  yet reached. Her name was already called thrice over  the public announcement system. Arindam was standing beside me while Bibhash was trying to explain something to him. As Arindam started to walk away pretending not to hear  Bibhash; suddenly Bibhash raised his voice, “There is a limit to everything, Arindam. You won’t lose anything  if you accompany Kalpalata on the table  for five minutes.”

Arindam: “I don’t play the tabla.”

Bibhash: “That’s all bunkum.”

Kalpalata was as surprised as I was  hearing the conversation between Bibhash & Arindam. In order to rescue Kalpalata from the precarious situation she was in , I had decided to extend my helping hand. In a low tone , I had said to Arindam, “Please help her out this time.”

Arindam had acceded to my request. The same Kalpalata, who had not even cared to cast a glance at Arindam earlier; now clutched at him just as a drowning person  clutches at a straw. “Save me, please.”

I’ve never before heard a haughty girl like Kalpalata speak in such a soft manner. And never after too.  Arindam could not refuse Kalpalata’s plea. The  students present were surprised to see Kalpalata take the stage along with Arindam. Till he sat at the tabla, none could guess that he was the tabla-palyer. They couldn’t believe their own eyes. Kalpalata looked nervous with anxiety as she wasn’t sure what’s going to happen. Only when Arindam played a couple of notes on the tabla, Kalpalata sat up straight and laid her fingers on the harmonium reeds. Kalpalata had sung “Bajubandh khulu khulu jai.” Arindam accompanied her vocals like a professional musician and once it was over, he left the stage as well as the function . He wasn’t to be seen for the entire evening  thereafter. Although his performance was highly praised that evening, there wasn’t any one who remembered it later. The memory of ghost-sighting was forgotten. Kalpalata got the first prize in classical vocals  consecutively for the second time . Her classmates were highly appreciative. I wasn’t any connoisseur of Hindustani classical music. My appreciation of music was limited to popular songs, movie-songs as well as modern Bengali  songs  played on request  from listeners of the radio. I was more interested in listening to the songs that I know rather than to unknown songs. Classical music went over my head. Neither did I have any interest in listening to such music. So, Kalpalata’s rendition of the classic “bajubandh khulu khulu jai”  didn’t particularly leave any impression on me . But what really was impressive  was Arindam’s mastery on the tabla. I’d have never known that one could extract such perfect & melodic notes from  a pair of cheap & grotesque- shaped percussion instruments like the  tabla.  I have never listened to tabla so attentively. How much I tried, I couldn’t think how Arindam learned to play the tabla .  This first sighting of Arindam’s ghost was repeated again in the bible class. Although the after-effects of the first incident of ghost-sighting was unknown  but when the ghost was seen  for the second time in the Bible class, the authorities in the college were struck with fear.

The Principal , when he learned of Arindam’s recitation of slokas from the Gita in the Bible class, had summoned  him from the class by sending a small note to him. What happened in that meeting was unknown to the other students. But I was aware of the conversation between the two since I had  continuously  pestered  Arindam  to reveal me the details.

The Principal, a Bengali Christian, was enraged at Arindam for reciting Gita-slokas in a Bible class and had asked him, in very strong words,  to leave the college for good. Arindam had stood in silence in front of the Principal. He was afraid. Just before the Principal was intending to summon the head-clerk for making arrangements to summarily expel Arindam from the college; Arindam had spoken. “Sir, doesn’t a student of a secular country have the  rights to recite slokas from his own religious book in a religion class?”

Upon hearing his question, the Principal had been unsettled. After regaining his stern composure, he had asked Arindam to take his seat. After a few banal exchange of words, the Principal had discussed  about the religion class with Arindam. A few days later, his order on the same line was pasted on the college notice board. The summary of the order was , that from then-on it was not compulsory for all  students to attend the Bible class. Only interested students would be welcome.

The Principal had requested Arindam to keep the subject matter of the discussion strictly confidential. Although the taciturn Arindam wanted to keep it that way, we couldn’t let go of  the opportunity to politicize the incident.  We beat our own drums , shouted from rooftops and publicized everywhere the role of the students’ union in protecting the secular  environment of the college. On Arindam’s earnest request, we had tried our best to keep him behind the scene. But we had failed. Arindam appeared apologetic whenever he used to enter the classroom.  Later he vanished from the scene for  a few days. I had noticed his absence  but decided to overlook.  A week later, he came to the college and wanted to fix a date with me for a discussion on the manifesto and on the three other books. I requested a month’s time under the pretext of some important work that I was involved with. Arindam gazed at me with painful eyes for a few seconds and then walked away.

In the next 30 days, I would have met Arindam a couple of times. Even after a month had passed by, Arindam didn’t show any inclination to discuss the four books. I was relieved. And that’s how Arindam’s ghost gradually disappeared from my psyche. 


End of Chapter 1.

To be continued..
Copyright of translation: JAS 2013

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