Suranjana Choudhury/Amitabha Dev Choudhury
Ordinarily I sit here. The road on the right hand side of Devdoot Cinema hall approaching Circuit House progressively culminates towards this bar. It is a small bar with eight tables. Each table has four chairs. I sit here when the sun retires down the horizon. Generally during this hour the bar is relatively unoccupied. At least it is not choked with frivolous youth crowd. So it is quiet and restful. I abhor any kind of noise and clamour in the bar.
The western side of the bar is enclosed with wall. The entrance through the glass door is on the same side of the wall. I gaze at the reflection of the waning sun on the door and leisurely sip on my drink and wonder, “Do I drink or do I savour life itself?”
I was deeply engaged with myself. So in response to the question, “may I sit here?” I delivered a nod of consent out of courtesy without even noting the person who asked this. Then I looked around with a tinge of surprise. All the remaining seven tables were vacant. So why did he have to sit here? I glanced towards room. He appeared handsome, tall, and fair with grey beard, a mix of black and white hair and glasses on. Remnants of a charming youth in its course of retreat lingered on his bearing. He would be around twenty-twenty two years older than me. But why does he drink so fast? I have not yet finished half of my served drink. He has already gulped down more than one pint.
“Do you remember your previous life?” I was startled at this question, however, I soon realised that this notion of mine that insane people never needed any liquor was thoroughly wrong. I took around five seconds to transform my sense of wonder into a sardonic edge, “Why would I think of my previous life when I don’t see myself being a man of any consequence in this present life of mine?” and then added, “Do you remember your previous life?” He replied clearly, “Yes I do. There was nothing here where you see this bar now. There used to be tennis hard court where you see Devdoot Cinema Hall now. Sahibs played there. There was a grass court a few yards ahead. Cachar Club housed a bar and library on its ground floor. The first floor had a ball dance room. There was an abundance of trees here. Can you imagine the varieties of birds present during that time? There were many, plenty of them. All varieties comprising birds like Indian starlings, robin, parrot, mynah, munias, bulbuli,wagtails, …. Those white men and women would come every morning and evening to view the birds. Sometimes they would watch bare-eyed and sometimes with binoculars.
“What were you then?” “I was a revolutionary then, a freedom fighter. My father ran a huge business in Tulapatty. He dealt in bronze and copper utensils. But I had come under the powerful grip of the revolutionaries connected with Mahaprabhu temple and Saraswat society.”
Is he mad? Does a mad person narrate a story so comprehendingly? I asked, “Then?” “I used to look at those Sahibs and Memsahibs. It is quite natural to experience a compelling attraction towards those who we wish to drive away or destroy. During Christmas huge tents were installed surrounding the entire neighbourhood. Those high society white men and women from all nearby tea gardens grouped together to arrive here. The tents were completely inaccessible. We natives were never allowed entry there. If we were ever spotted in the vicinity, they would firmly order us in English to leave the place immediately. We knew their language though it was difficult to negotiate with their accent. However in tennis grass court whenever these people came for bird watching we looked at them clandestinely. One day a little white girl came. She was probably three years younger than me. She looked disarmingly beautiful. She inspected me as if she was watching a species of male hornbill. Then she smiled fixing her eyes on me. “
“What happened then?” “What do you expect to happen after that? Does Christmas last throughout the year? It ends, the celebration too fades away. The Sahibs dislodged the tents and went away. I never saw her again.”
“Please tell what happened after that?”
“What else could happen dear brother? I got married within a few days. My wife was twelve years old. She was a pretty and petit girl. I grew close to her in no time. But I disliked watching her clad in a sari, especially during nights. One day I gave in to a peculiar fancy of mine. Money was never a problem for me. I bought a very expensive piece of dress material and got it stitched by a Muslim tailor applying my own sense of measurement. The tailor was a skilled professional. He was a specialist in stitching foreign attires. After receiving the stitched dress, I gave it to my wife as a surprise gift just as any Sahib would have done. I assumed my wife would jump with joy at this. But it never happened. Rather she stared at me, her eyes wide open, as though she was witnessing a mad person. Then she opened the door and raced out of the room.”
I sat there mesmerised. The inebriation was not induced by any liquor; it was the sheer effect of his story telling. I have only drunk one and half glass, the remaining half is still floating on my glass. The story teller has started his fourth drink. The sun has dwindled away. A semi darkened ambience prevails in the room. It looked as if an artist after having painted the room in water colours has layered it with a single stroke of black shade. The light is not lit yet.
“She went straight to my mother’s refuge. My mother didn’t let her come to me that night. She didn’t turn up the next night too. It continued till the next night. The next morning my father summoned me to his room. After entering I saw our chief priest seated opposite my father. He carried some religious text enveloped in red salu*. My father directly confronted me, “Symbolically you have already involved yourself with a memsahib in an amorous tie. You have to offer penitence for this.”
“What happened after that?”
“The ritual of penance continued throughout the day. I was filled with self-loathing while performing the act. That evening I invited a few friends of mine and bought a bottle of liquor. That was the first occasion of drinking . Then we got ourselves drunk.”
“What could happen thereafter? The habit persisted. I started drinking eighty years ago and till now I drink…” the man abruptly vanished in the midst of the conversation. The emptied glass and his used coiled napkins lay on the table.
I sat dazedly for a while. Then I rose up from my place. I placed my hand slightly on the cushion where the man was sitting. But why did the seat feel so bizarrely cold on such a warm day? I wondered if actually any real human being occupied that seat. Perhaps a frozen figure rested on this seat for so long.
Note: *Salu: Vermillion hued cloth mostly used during Hindu rituals
Translator’s Note: This short and crisp narrative serves us with a fascinating array of images- visual, verbal, tactile and so on. The readers are engaged with evocative vignettes of Silchar and its lived lives. In the story, the personal mingles with the collective, real cascades into the surreal and past deluges the present. I feel privileged to have experienced the task of translating this wonderful story because Silchar, a seemingly ordinary town with its extraordinary richness and complexity, continues to define roots for me.
About the Author: Amitabha Dev Choudhury is one of the most engaging creative voices of Barak Valley. He has written numerous novels, short fictions and a wide range of poems. His writings explore an expansive span of subjects and an equally challenging mass of techniques. Silchar and its fringes enjoy an abiding presence in many of his writings.
Suranjana Choudhury, the translator of this story, is Assistant Professor, Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. She has grown up in Silchar.