Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English. Over twenty of his translations have been published so far. Twice the winner of the Crossword translation award, for Sankar's Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri's Seventeen (2011), respectively, he has also been shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction prize (2009) for his translation of Chowringhee. Besides India, his translations have been published in the UK and the US in English, and in several European and Asian countries through further translation. He was born and grew up in Kolkata, and lives and writes in New Delhi.
Translation: ‘The Gift of Death’ by Nabarun Bhattacharya
Some people’s lives are so dreary that in the process of putting up with the tedium they don’t even realise when they just die. When you think about it, they seem to be under a cloud of doubt even after death. In that respect, few people are born as lucky as me. Whenever I get fed up of things, something inevitably happens to revive my spirits. But you can’t say this to too many people. Friends and relations all assume I’m grinding out an existence just like them. Hand-to-mouth. Brainless sheep, the whole lot. But then it’s best for them to think this way. Else they’ll be jealous. They’ll look at me strangely. I don’t know how to cope with envy. I’m afraid of the evil eye too. Good and evil – that’s what makes the world go round.
The first thing I have going for me is my amazing contact with lunatics at regular intervals. Chance or fate, it just happens. An example or two will help me explain without creating problems on the business side. But it’s best not to tell the psychiatrist my wife took me to. Suppose she changes my pills?
Just the other day this man – gaunt, half-dead, looks like one of those people who can fly – got hold of me. Had two terrific schemes, he said. He’d sent the details to every world leader. Two of them had replied so far. Both Thatcher and Gorbachev had praised his ideas. He’d be talking to both of them soon. He was flying out next month. I sat down to hear of his schemes.
The first one was to build a projection jutting out from the balcony of every apartment in all the high-rise buildings coming up these days. Something like a diving board at a swimming pool. He would make a couple of prototypes to begin with. Once the government had approved enthusiastically, it would be added to the building plan, without having to be added on later.
Apparently it was essential for people to have such high spots nowadays to stand or sit on. Without railings, not very large. It was for those who wanted to be by themselves. People were chased by thousands of things these days. He was being chased by the chief minister, by scientists, by the prime minister. The police commissioner too. Also by the Special Branch, the Criminal Investigations Department, and the Research & Analysis Wing. That was when the plan struck him. A slice of space – but outside the building. Speaking for myself, the idea appealed to me too. Entirely possible. But because I lived in a single-storied house inherited from my father, I didn’t give it too much thought. His second scheme was not exactly a plan – it was more of an adventurous proposal or proposition, though it was closely connected to the first scheme. He would stand as well as walk on the wings of a mid-air aircraft. He wanted to demonstrate this practically. Today’s youth would regain their courage if they saw him. The youth needed dreams, for the alternatives were drugs, cinema and HIV. He wanted to perform this feat on an Indian Air Force plane. He had written it all down in detail. There were diagrams too. All of it gathered in a thin plastic folder. He kept these documents in a file tied up with a string. He wanted to know if I could help him with the second idea in. Whether I knew an Air Marshal, for instance. When I said I wouldn’t be able to help him, he requested me to pay for a cup of tea and a cigarette at least. I did.
I have met several such insane people, in different shapes and sizes and with different behaviours. I have seen people who have gone mad with sudden grief. I’ve encountered not a few suicides too. Before killing themselves, some people develop a half-mad detachment. I’ve come across such people too. But then I’ve also run into not one but two cases where there wasn’t a whiff of insanity. Both of them used to spend time with mystics. One of them used to go to Tarapith, that den of mystics, every Sunday. The other was embroiled deeply in office politics. Both hanged themselves. All of these incidents are true. The age of making stories up has ended – why should people believe me, and why should I bother to make them up, either? Some of the lunatics and suicides I’ve seen were tragedies of love. But this isn’t the time for stories about women. Although the first person whom I told the story that I have eventually decided to recount here was my wife. A woman, in other words.
And this was what led to all the quarrels and demands. For what? That I must see a psychiatrist. I was an able-bodied man – why should I abandon the business I ran and go see a doctor for the insane? She paid no attention. Her brothers came. Collectively they forced me to see a woman psychiatrist. What an enormous fuss they made. But it turned out to be a good idea. Very pretty. Western looks. And matching conversation. Very cordial. I liked her so much that I told her the story too. For years altogether now I’ve been taking the tiny white pills she gave me, thrice a day. Sometimes I take a blue one too. It gets wearisome. I get annoyed. But I like the woman so much that I can’t help trusting her. I try to tell myself that I’ve recovered from an illness. Not that I’m ill.
The story that all this preamble leads up to is not about lunatics or suicides, however. In fact it’s been three whole years. I was returning home by train from Madras. I have to travel indiscriminately on business. To save money I travel second class on the way out, but on the way back I give in to my longing for luxury and inevitably buy a first class ticket. There was no one else in the four-berth compartment. I was comfortable. Somewhere near the Andhra-Orissa border I woke up and found everything dark. The train wasn’t moving either. Pitch dark. You couldn’t see anything out of the window. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness I realised that the train was standing at a small station somewhere. A deep indigo night sky. Hints of low black hills. A few lonely stars. People moving about. The glow of torches. Getting off the train, I heard that a goods train had been in an accident. It would have to be moved and the line, repaired. Only then would our train resume its journey.
Almost without warning, the lights came back on. I went back to my compartment. At once I discovered that someone else had entered in the darkness. The man was – not probably, but almost certainly – not a South Indian. His appearance and way of talking made that obvious. In his forties. Fair, well-dressed, handsome. Slightly greying hair. His fine shirt and trousers, gleaming shoes and the tie around his neck gave him the appearance of a successful salesman of a multinational company. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I still don’t know the name of the company or how big it was. So big that it was almost mysterious and obscure.
After some small talk both of us lit our cigarettes. He was the one to offer his expensive cigarettes. When I asked him whether he wouldn’t mind a little whiskey, he said he didn’t drink. So I drank by myself. There was no sign of the train leaving. Neither of us spoke for a while. Almost startling me, the man suddenly said, – Keep this business card of ours. Might come in useful. The card was black, made of some kind of paper with the feel of velvet. On it, an address in an unsettling shade of bright yellow. Nothing else. A Waltair address. Nothing else on either side of the card. Neither the name of a company, nor a phone number.
- That’s not our actual address, mind you. You have to take a roundabout route to reach us. But when you write to us add your address with all details. Our people will certainly get in touch with you. It may take a little time. But they will definitely meet you.
- What exactly is this business of yours? Seems to be some sort of secret, illegal affair… But then you’ve got business cards too – strange!
- Look, our company doesn’t have a name. No name. We help people die – you could say we gift them death. Of course it isn’t legal, but…
- You mean you murder them.
- Absolutely not! Murder! How awful, we aren’t killers. It will be done with your full consent. Different kinds of death, in different ways. You will choose your method, and pay accordingly. You want to die like a king? We can do it for you. We will fulfil whatever death wish you might have, no matter how unusual. You’ll get exactly what you want, just the way you want it. But yes, you have to pay.
I had a long conversation with the man thereafter. I’m recounting as much of it as I can recollect. As much of the strangeness as actually penetrated my whiskey-soaked brain in the anonymous darkness of the station. As much as I’ve been able to retain three years later.
His position was that, for a variety of reasons, each of us harbours a unique death wish within ourselves. That is to say, a pet notion – and desire – of how we’d like to die. Like a romantic, someone might want to leap from a mountain into a bottomless ravine on a cold, misty evening. Others want their bodies to be riddled by bullets. Yet others, to be charred to death in a fire. Someone else wants poison in their bloodstream, so they they begin with a slight warm daze and bow out as cold as ice. Some want to be conscious at the moment of death, while others prefer to be halfway to oblivion. One person wants to be strangled to death. Another is keen on being stabbed. Some people wish for death in a holy place, the sound of sacred chants ringing in their ears. But wishing doesn’t guaantee fulfilment. No matter what, the majority of deaths are uninteresting, drab and dull. This company meets the demand for such deaths, fulfilling its clients’ death wishes. I remember some parts of the salesman’s pitch verbatim.
- There’s a theoretical side to this too. Our R&D is extremely strong. You’ll find non-stop research underway, not only on the practical side of death, but also on other aspects, covering data from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Thanatos Syndrome, Indian thoughts on death, Abhedananda, and Jiddu Krishnamoorthy to the latest forms of murder, suicide and clinical death. Forget about India, no one in the world is engaged in this sort of business. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone. We’ve been told of a few small-scale attempts in Japan, but this isn’t a matter of automobiles or electronics, after all. They may have their Toyota and Mitsubishi, but those poor fellows still can’t think beyond hara-kiri. All those bamboo or steel knives – so primitive. Not at all enterprising. Incidentally, do you know which country has the most suicides in the world?
- Must be us.
- No sir, it’s Hungary. Magyars are incredibly suicide-prone.
They offered access to all kinds of death. They would fulfil even the most intricate and virtually impossible proposals. A man from Delhi had always imagined dying when his jeep skidded on an icy mountain road. It was organised. If you wanted to die of a specific disease, their medical team would check on its feasibility. But they would not engineer someone else’s death on your request. You could only arrange for your own death through their services.
I learnt a great deal from the conversation. Apparently many people lived such bewildered lives that even though they had a vague idea of how they’d like to die, they could not express it clearly. The company had a choice of pre-set programmes for such clients. The most regal of these was the ‘record player’.
A gigantic record player was set in the ocean at a distance. A huge black disc was set in it, the disc of death, turning at thirty-three and one third revolutions per minute. The record player was placed on a rig similar to an offshore oil-drilling platform. You had to get there on a speedboat. The fortunate man desiring death was made to sit on a chair over the spoke, shaped like a bullet or a lipstick, reaching upwards through the hole at the centre of the record. The record-player played an impossibly tragic melody – Western or Indian. Rachmaninoff’s Aisle of Death, or the wistful strains of a sarengi, as you wished. Several thousand watts of sound enveloped the client in a trance. Revolving on the surface of the ocean along with the record, he was also transported to a place beyond the real and the unreal. When the music ended, the stylus entered the glittering space in the middle of the record with the sound of a storm, striking the man a mighty blow that ensured his death even before his body hit the water. His head was either torn off his body or pulverised. As soon as the corpse fell into the sea, hundreds of sharks swam up at the scent of blood. This was a very expensive affair. Very few people could afford it. Till date, not more than two or three people had heard the symphony of death.
- Who are they?
- Excuse me, but clients are more important to us than even god. We cannot possibly divulge their identities. Although we are practically friends now, you and I. Do you remember how Mr ____ died? You should.
- How could I not remember. Such a horrible plane crash!
- It was a plane crash all right, but that was what he wanted.
- But what about the other passengers? Surely they didn’t want it.
- Sorry. It’s prohibitively expensive. Because there are other victims.
- But they were innocent.
- Innocent! My foot! In any case, there’s nothing we can do about it. None of them told us to kill them. But if they insist on taking the same flight, what are we supposed to do? Moroever, this was his choice. Yes, choice. We made all the arrangements to fulfil his request, using the money he paid us.
- But. Why did he do this?
- He had got rid of Mr ____ the same way. Not through us, of course. Lots of innocent people had died on that occasion too. So he wanted a similar death.
- How many more such cases have you handled?
- Numerous. But why should we tell you about all of them? Can all such cases be talked about? Should they even be talked about? We offer many services. We sell suicide projects, for instance. Not as expensive. Lots more. Let me just tell you this, all the famous people who have died recently – from the Bombay mafia leader being gunned down to the Calcutta filmstar who committed suicide with the phone in his hand and forty sleeping pills in his stomach – it was all our doing. And then there are always the political leaders. It’s very easy to help them – all of them prefer a heart attack.
- So you people help only the famous? Give them the gift of death, that is.
- We’re still trying consolidate our business, you see. The company’s a long way from breaking even. But yes, pride in our performance is our major capital at present. Later, of course, we’ll have to think of the economically weaker classes too. To tell you the truth, poor people are much more trouble. The bastards aren’t even sure whether they’re alive in the first place, how can they be expected to think of death? And besides, they’re unbelievably crude.
- What about those even lower down – miles below the poverty line – beggars?
- Impossible! Last year our Research and Development people studied the death wishes of beggars in three metropolitan cities – Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Their findings were – how shall I put it -; silly and delightful. Childish demands.
- Such as?
- In most cases the image involves eating. For instance, some of them want their limbs, heads and bodies to be stuffed with meat, fish, butter and alcohol till they explode. They desperately want liquor. Then again, some of them wanted god to take them in his arms at the centre of Flora Fountain in Bombay. Infantile, and so naive.
- But you have to say they’re imaginative.
- That’s true. They’re bound to, since they’re human beings. But yes, we get a lot of valuable ideas from children. Just the other day our R&D unearthed a fascinating story from an American newspaper.
- Tell me, please.
- A boy, you know. About twelve. Somewhere near Chicago. The fellow had dressed up as Batman. He was Batman constantly, jumping from roof to roof with a pair of wings clipped on. No one took him seriously. Even the girls used to laugh at him. Child psychology, you see. So none of you can recognise Batman, he said. One day he was found in a deep freezer, frozen after several days in there. You’d be astounded at the kind of cases there are. Batman! Actually it’s not like I don’t drink. Pour me a strong whiskey, will you? What’s this whiskey called? Glender! Oh, it’s Scotch. I’ve never heard of this brand.
I had poured a few whiskeys. For the salesman. And for myself too. After I had poured several, he had left like Batman, swinging and weaving. I had weaved my way to bed too. The train had started moving. I could still hear his voice ringing in my ears…
- But yes, there’s a grand surprise in death, especially in accidental death – a thrill that we never deprive our clients of. Say someone has booked a death to be run over by a car. But not all his efforts will allow him to guess when, where, or on which road he will die. The virgin charm of sudden death will always remain.
Who was this man? What company did he represent, for that matter? The gift of death – the idea couldn’t exactly be dismissed out of hand. Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t been able to do it for three years. Secondly, don’t we have our own visions of death, after all? Would it be fulfilled in this one life, in this life? For instance, I have a specific sort of death wish of my own too. But then the death by record player is very expensive. Naturally. I live with doubts and misgiving like these. These things lie low when I take my pills regularly. When they raise their heads I visit the psychiatrist. She changes the medicine. Blue pills instead of white. In the darkness of power-cuts I pull that man’s black business card out for a look. The disturbing yellow letters are probably printed in fluoroscent ink. They glow in the darkness. I don’t mind showing the card to anyone who gets in touch with me. You can check for yourself by writing to them. It might take a little time but their people will certainly get in touch. You can be sure about this. They will definitely meet you.
Translated from Bangla.