Translated from Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee
“Hello, are you well?”
“Yes, I am good.”
“Aren’t you Debdas Dutta?”
“No. My name is Animesh Halder.”
Basanta was taken aback. That was strange. He knew this particular person as Debdas Dutta. Although he didn’t know him personally. He spotted the man sometimes on the streets. Basanta had possibly seen the man on the train as well. Was he that mistaken! Although a little unsure, Basanta questioned again- “That day- last Tuesday, I think, weren’t you standing in front of a book stall at platform number 2 of Naihati station? Someone had asked you there: ‘Debdas da, how are things at your place?’ Even the owner of the stall had addressed you as Dutta da!” The man replied in an unaffected yet sad manner- “I hadn’t gone to Naihati last month; I had gone somewhere that day but that was to Falta.” He stopped and thought for a while and then said, “What people choose to call other people is a personal choice, what can I do about that?” He didn’t stop after that; he bent his body forward and in a busy manner left rather suddenly. Basanta was quite surprised. He wondered that he had made such a mistake! Was his memory gathering dust? The same face, the parrot-like nose, even the mole on his nose was the same. Was the man hiding his true identity? What would he gain by that? What could he gain by fooling a slight acquaintance like Basanta, a relative stranger?
Basanta had seen him board the train from Sodepur sometimes as well as from Naihati. Anyhow, although he was taken aback, there wasn’t much he could do about it. How someone identifies himself is his own matter. However, if the man was really Animesh Halder and not Debdas Dutta, it was a matter of some concern. The worry was to do with his own mind, his brain. Or perhaps it was nothing; maybe it was just an honest mistake. He was just not able to understand the mistake. He didn’t stay that far. He was sure he would get to the bottom of things someday.
A few days later Basanta went to Chandmari for a musical programme. He seldom attended classical programmes. But when he did listen to these, he found himself immersed in them. Basanta was listening to a famous sarod player. While listening, he heard the word come from the stage, perhaps from the microphone or may be from someone sitting in a special place. The word seemed to move throughout his being. He liked being absorbed in music this way. Suddenly, he heard someone say rather loudly- “Sankar da, Sankar da! Can you hear me Mr. Mazumdar?” Basanta was a little annoyed. Why did such people turn up to listen to classical music? In his annoyance, he turned to look back at the person talking when he collided with someone. The man who was being addressed as Shankar da was none other than Animesh Halder or Debdas Dutta. The same eyes, nose, face and the mole on his nose. Basanta felt very angry. Did the man have a separate name for each person he came across? His anger seemed to roam within him in concentric circles. After some time though he considered that Shankar could be the person’s pet name. That thought calmed him down a little. But Mazumdar? The intoxication of the music wore off. Basanta was determined to talk to the man after the programme was over. Perhaps he could initiate a bit of the conversation right then. Trying to disturb the others as little as possible, Basanta called out- “Excuse me, Sankarbabu?”
The man moved his face away in irritation and mumbled, “If you can’t concentrate, why do you come to a classical music concert, mister?” Basanta felt really insulted as if someone had slapped both his cheeks. He couldn’t listen to the music anymore. After the concert ended, Basanta looked around in natural curiosity but couldn’t locate the man. Even the person who had addressed the mysterious man as ‘Sankarda’ seemed to have vanished.
Basanta’s days passed by routinely- office, market, home, sometimes the club, other times his son’s school. He wasn’t uncomfortable at his job either. Basanta checked his mental acuity by solving his son’s mathematics homework. He seemed alright to himself. It had been many days since he had seen Debdas Dutta or Animesh Halder or Shankar Mazumdar. He used to get off at the Naihati station many a time. He would wait by the book stall, look at the books, have tea, but to no avail. Why was he investigating that matter? Was it merely curiosity? Basanta himself did not understand the impetus very clearly. Quite surprisingly he would often think about the man on his regular journeys.
One day Basanta had gone to Barasat for some work. Suddenly he saw that man in front of the cooperative bank. The man had his left hand in his pocket and seemed to be deep in thought. Basanta’s face hardened a little. As soon as the man saw him look at him, he went inside the bank swiftly. Basanta followed suit. No one asked him anything. Following the man, Basanta made his way through an auditorium-like hall and took a chair right behind him. Hearing the talk in the hall, Basanta felt perhaps it was the bank shareholders’ conference. A call came from the counter. Basanta was very alert this time. He was observing the man minutely. He was really determined to fish out the man’s real identity. Someone suddenly called out from the counter- “Basanta Bagchi”. Basanta almost jumped out of his seat. Strange!
He didn’t own a single share in the bank. He didn’t even have an account there. He had come that side only once or twice for some office work. Nobody knew him that well there either. Amazed, Basanta stood up partially and then sat down again, doubly confused. That rascal! The nerve! That man was showing his papers at the counter nonchalantly. The clerk looked at the man’s papers and said, “Alright Basanta babu.” The man left the bank immediately leaving the shocked Basanta behind. What did this mean! The man then possessed Basanta Bagchi’s papers. Basanta thought of going and questioning the man at the counter once. But what could he say? He was Basanta Bagchi as well, but didn’t have his identity papers on him. How could he refute the Basanta Bagchi who had papers in his possession? Besides the man at the counter would wave him away, as one waves a fly, saying- couldn’t two men have the same name? He wouldn’t be able to show any admissible reason to be present in the bank that day either. Basanta walked out of the bank unsteadily. Although he lacked the will, he still thought of following the man once. But by that time, it was too late.
I am Basanta Bagchi. I live in this city. I am a lower division clerk in a government office. I have an ordinary homemaker as wife. I have a son. I eat Hilsa in the first half of the month and Tilapiya fish towards the end. Nothing extraordinary has ever occurred in my life. My sadness, pain, success and desire have all been mediocre. My mundane life has no spark. I will be able to tell you how each day of my life will pass in the next three months. Till that day. But let’s leave it at that. I had felt like a war-hero the first day of my work. But that was also the day when my boss had scolded me and cursed the education system of Bengal due to a small mistake in my English note-taking. I had also felt like a hero, the night of my marriage. But the people who had accompanied me as the groom’s part reported that they had been served a maximum of two rasgullas, sometimes less than that. These two incidents saw an untimely demise of my heroic self. Ever since both expectation and surprise have left me. Alongside I sometimes accompany my friends to a cheap bar to make myself feel like an important and valued citizen of my country. But I have embroiled myself in a strange contest. With an unknown man. Or perhaps with myself. However, I am still not sure if I can call this a confrontation at all. A man is roaming freely using a variety of names. Why? I haven’t been able to get any proof of fraud. Why did he use my name? I grew tired of being amazed by this fact after sometime. The man is not that easy to find. One can come across him only if he wants to be seen. My work is going on as usual. My involvement with that man has nothing to do with all of this. But something or someone causes a restlessness in me. I am as familiar with this locality and this city as I am with the courtyard of my house in daylight. But sometimes an unknown planet descends onto that space. Lately, I have started observing my family members minutely. Rani, my wife of fifteen years. Will she become a stranger someday? My Babai, he is my son, right? The more I think of these things the more hurt I feel. My mind had been oscillating in these thoughts when I reached the Chowrasta crossing the other day. There was a crowd near the crossing. I came to understand the matter when I moved closer. A thief had been caught, a pickpocket. The small, seemingly harmless man had taken a purse from a man twice his size. I felt pity at the beseeching thief. He had lost his loot but I worried more about the loss of his life at the hands of the hefty man. The giant-like man had pounced on his neck like a wild cat. He slapped the man hard, twice, and said- “What is your name?”. I felt both sympathy and embarrassment. The stories and plays usually advise us against such public violence. But the man who was beaten said- “My name is Basanta Bagchi.” Oh God! He deserves to be hit. Hearing his name made the wild cat fiercer. He started screaming- “Son of a monkey! Are you trying to make a joke? Not only will you steal my money, but also my name! Tell me, how did you know my name?” I was shocked, although I perhaps should not have been. Even the hefty wild cat was named… I couldn’t take it anymore! Has everyone gone mad? “Both of you are called Basanta Bagchi?”, said a bespectacled professor-type person, a thin stick in hand, even he was called Basanta Bagchi! The three of them- the thief, the wild cat and the professor seemed to discuss something and then start a brawl. They were fighting and jumping around like monkeys! Each claimed that he was the real Basanta Bagchi. And I? Standing there on the street, I didn’t feel brave enough to articulate my own name. The roughhousing increased. More people joined the fight. A police car moved in. The police officer Basanta Bagchi let out a cry and jumped into the brawl with a baton in his hand. After sometime he came to me, his face dark as the clouds. Along with him came another official. “Hey you! What are you doing here? What is your name?” What a catastrophe! How do I say to officer Basanta Bagchi, “My lord, my name is Basanta Bagchi!” Somehow the words came out of my mouth- “My name is Debdas Dutta.” The slap from the accompanying officer felt like two hundred and forty volts. He thundered- “You have left me and taken hold of him, mischief-monger!” “What do you say Debdas? Do you have a twin brother?” The two men joined the crowd again. I took small steps away from the throng. Everything turned dark all around. The earth seemed to be filled in the dense blackness of a new moon night. It seemed as though thousands of people were gathering and fighting one another. The drops of darkness spilled like blood. My feet didn’t seem to want to move. I escaped with much difficulty. I am still running, piercing the darkness to the pure, rarefied north of our planet. But I don’t know if I am running from the many Basanta Bagchi, or myself.
[First published in Shunya Dashaker Choto Golpo, Abhijan, January 2014.]
Sambit Chakrabarti had never really planned to become a writer. However, experiences and observations since childhood have framed his writerly self. Although keen on sports, he liked to put himself in the shoes of the characters he came across in novels and short stories, preparing himself to write his own characters someday. He is first a thinker, then a writer. Employed as a state government employee, he lives in Kalyannagar, Rahara, North 24 Parganas, West Bengal. His publications include two short story anthologies Aami Ebong Aamra (2018) and Shesh Jatinga and several publications in Bengali little magazines.
Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, under the University of Calcutta. She is currently pursuing Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in West African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. She is a published poet, short fiction writer and a passionate translator. She translates Bengali and Hindi fiction into English and is an editor at The Antonym Magazine. She is also an ELT trainer, consultant and ESL author.