In the Land of the Dead
(An Assamese short story written by Devabrata Das)
I have been discharged from the public hospital this morning. I am now waiting on a stretcher, on the hospital verandah, waiting to be escorted back home. The condition of my health is now beyond repair. I could easily detect the emptiness of the doctors' promises that I would recover even faster at home. As one grows old, one's senses become keener. That is how I could tell that the doctors were lying to me. In fact, it is the hopelessness of my condition that had forced the doctors to release me from the hospital.
Nobody from my family has come to the hospital to escort me back home. My sons have sent the old car with the driver. The car had developed certain mechanical defects on its way to hospital. So Rahmat, the driver told me that it would take a little time to repair the car. Rahmat had already hired a mechanic to set right the defects. So, I am waiting now, on this hospital verandah, lying on the stretcher to be taken back home.
A few persons arrived at the hospital carrying a dead body. They placed the body not far away from me, and immediately they dispersed in different directions possibly to locate a doctor, a nurse or a compounder who were nowhere to be seen. A terrible stench emanated from the dead body and attacked my nostrils. I looked towards the body. No it wasn't a dead body at all. In fact it was a dying man, a living skeleton: a frame of bare bones over which was stretched a shrivelled and moth-eaten skin. His nearness made me very uncomfortable and angry too. This Rahmat is taking a long time. But I cannot do anything to get afar from this foul smelling wretched bastard. I have been paralyzed. I cannot move around by myself. For the rest of my life, I am doomed to lie on my bed, completely at the mercy of others to help me do even daily chores.
A mobile cart carrying meals for the inmates of the hospital was being pushed through the verandah by a few wardboys. The variety of smells from overcooked rice, half-baked curries and the creaking noise of the cart made everyone nearby take notice. The living skeleton left on the verandah near me promptly sat up and started begging "Give me a little dal-bhat, please I am very very hungry." He produced an aluminium dish from nowhere and received whatever the wardboys deigned to offer. And how fast he ate. Within seconds the hungry skeleton devoured whatever little he was given and in no time wiped the plate clean. After finishing his meal with noticeable relish he turned towards me and said:
"Actually, I have no illness. I am not sick at all. It was only lack of food. I don't even remember the last time when I could eat a bellyfull. I was lying on the roadside out of sheer exhaustion, when these good Samaritans discovered me, and dragged me to this place."
"You have no family? No home?"
"No, I am a footpath man, a beggar. Like most of my fellow countrymen. In my country the majority of the population do not have a house. Do not have a family. Do you have any?"
I replied in the affirmative. But the beggar refused to believe me. He found it impossible to digest the fact that a person with such a big and rich family should be left stranded on a public hospital verandah a forlorn, lonely, helpless figure lying horizontal on a stretcher, unattended by anybody.
While I was talking with the skeleton, a few other skeletons reached the hospital. Most of them could not be admitted or given shelter in the hospital and so were left stranded on the verandah itself in our company. After a long time Rahmat appeared near me rescued me from the land of skeletons, the land of the beggars the land of the dead.
My four darling sons have contributed a fair lot of transforming our country into a land of the dead or a dead or a land of beggars. Of course, I am also to blame for their upbringing.
I was in politics once. Long before the country's independence I had joined Gandhiji's non-violence movement. Funny, though now it seems, but I was also a part of the "satyagraha" movement. A movement in search of truth, honesty and freedom from bondage.
The coutry was free at last. Gandhiji's dream had come true. The country progressed under new leaders. Gandhiji and his idealism were left behind in pursuit of transient and immediate glory. I also became part of the process. Under the new breed of leaders like me it was time for sham-development at all costs.
Affluence without any questions being asked. No one was there to question the process. As a result, the country turned poorer and poorer gradually, whereas a handful of powerful people, a few scores of business people and a large number of corrupt bureaucrats became richer and richer. I was also one of the select few who amassed a sizeable fortune alongwith the others. My sons were also brought up in this changing atmosphere. The old valued of society were soon forgotten. My sons learnt from me that nothing mattered more than one's own well-being. The family first and the family last. The family coffers are to be filled with wealth by hook or by crook. The rest of the country may go to dogs.
Soon my sons attained maturity. They also proved to be the worthy sons of a worthy father. The first son followed my path. Unable to pass his B.A exams he soon joined the whirlpool of politics, emerging as a leader of tomorrow. He soon learnt the usefulness of underhand deals. Now he owns almost one third of the second most prosperous market in town. Not only this but the strings of a lot of public funds are tied to his fingertips. These funds which are supposed to help better the lot of the vast majority of the people living under the poverty line have come in very handy in filling his own family coffers and those of his political friends.
My second son is a wholesale trader in food grains. His motto is more and more profits through adulteration. He distributes not only the basic food materials among the needy public but also the basic germs of incurable diseases among them. Thus pushing the unsuspecting public faster towards their sickbeds my worthy son has made his bank balance healthier and healthier every day.
The third son is a doctor. The medicines purchased for dispensation at the public hospitals are routed to the market place through his machinations. He also deals in spurious drugs killing millions of patients throughout the country without the slightest pangs of conscience. While the dead bodies increase in number my son’s riches also increase manifold.
My fourth son deals in skeletons. While the country is going to the dogs, while my first three sons collectively are helping the common people to embrace death much earlier than they deserve, when the dead bodies are increasing in number everywhere, my fourth darling son revels in commercial delight. More dead bodies mean more business for him. More dead bodies mean more skeletons. More skeletons means more exports. Yes, my fourth son exports skeletons to foreign countries and earns unthinkable profits. Thanks to leaders like me, politicians, traders, businessmen and doctors like my sons, there is never any death of dead bodies in our country. So my last son is prospering in his business day by day.
All of my sons are happy. All four of them have happy families. All of them are busy making money. More and more money. They are all so very busy that not one son of mine could spare a little tome to come to the hospital to escort me back home. Not even one son of mine came. Only the old driver Rahmat and our old car was sent. Such negligence is difficult to tolerate. So I decided that I should die, I died only a few days later at home.
Now I am on my way to my grave. People of my persuasion bury their dead. Many people have joined my funeral procession. All of my sons have found to time to accompany me on this my last journey to the graveyard. But not a single one of them look really sorry to see me die. I know the tears in their eyes are crocodile tears. They are there only for the people to see. They are not real tears.
“So you have died after all.”
A beggar walking beside my dead body was talking to me. I would recognize him fairly well even though he looked as anonymous as any of the beggars in town. He was the dead body I had met in the hospital verandah. He was the skeleton who found it hard to believe that I was not beggar like himself; that I had my own family, my riches, my own home quite unlike him, I was surprised to find him in my funeral procession, I asked, “why have you come to my funeral procession? You don’t even know me well. What right do you have to show grief over my death?”
“No, no: No grief. On the other hand I am very happy. I have come only to see your house, I have no interest in joining your funeral procession.”
“And why this sudden interest in my house, if I am permitted to ask?”
“Oh, sure, sure, you can always ask. Actually, it is my duty to go and visit the houses of all the dead people who have died recently. You know, the religious rites call for the relatives to throw a dinner party on the fortieth day after the death; Chalisa, you know. Now if we don’t recognize your house how shall we come to enjoy you Chalisha feast? That is why I have come. Not out of grief but out of anticipation of a grand feast of ‘Pulao, parathas, tasty side-dishes and what not. Ah ha : how long it is since I joined a good Chalisa feast! You people seem to be quite rich. So the feast should be equally good! I am so happy that after forty days I’ll have a nice feast. I shall eat licking my fingers to the knuckles! Great!”
I was very angry with him. Here I was on my way to the graveyard leaving all my near and dear ones and all my riches for good. And this bastard is dancing in glee only because he is assured of a sumptuous feast at my house at my expense after forty days, what right does he have to act in such a disgraceful manner on a day of mourning? Look at his joy! Look at him dancing near my funeral bed! Wait, wait, you bastard! Even you don’t have a lot of time. Look at yourself. You are nothing but skin and bones. A living skeleton. That’s what you are. You too will die soon. Then my son will dig you out of the grave and skin you from top to bottom. Then he will send your bones to a country far, far away. Wait, I shall introduce you to my son. My fourth son who deals in skeletons. He will keep a tab on you. He will follow you everywhere. He will not let you live in peace till you die. Then he will grab you like a Dracula and he will suck you blood. From your grave you will be dugout. Your bones will be auctioned, wait, wait you bastard. I’ll call my fourth son and deliver you to him.
From where I lay, in the forefront of the procession, I looked for my fourth son. I did not have to search for long. He was right behind me. But… O God! What is this? Why this queer look in his eyes? Why do his eyes look so greedy when they focus on my dead body? My god! Is he considering even his old father’s dead body, his own father’s skeleton as a future business investment? Will he not allow even his own father’s body to lie peacefully in the grave after his death?
(Translated into English by the Author.)
( Devabrata das is one Of the most significant and talented story writers in Assamese Literature emerging in the seventies. He set a new trend in Assamese Literature with his kind of story telling technique which revolved around the growth and identity of modern urban city life. His stories reflects the political unrest of the seventies,the conflict between emotion and trust of eighties and expansion of consumer culture of the nineties and how these factors influenced the life of Assamese middle class society is beautifully portrayed in these stories.Debabrata Das is a powerful trendsetter in modern Assamese literature. His published anthologies of short stories include ARPITAR ERATI(1981), HOITOBA VESSON (1987), ARPITAR OINYA ERATI (1992), BISOY MULOTO PREM (1995), NIRMALIR SAPON (2002). RATIPUALOI (2011). A powerful novelist Debrata Das has written several novels include Mrigoya Nithur Mrigoya (1993), MOdhyantor (1993), Putola nachor Sadhu (1994), Dhusorotar Kavya (2005). He was awarded with prestigious Tagore Literary Award By Sahitya Akademi.)