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Bitopan Borborah
Date of Publish: 2017-05-20

The stroke of the midnight hour

 

 

The clock of Marylyn Towers in New York shows 6 o’clock. Every morning Nijan Phukan awoke looking at the clock, as it lay right across his bedroom window.

 

…Nijan Phukan was reminded of the clock on Marilyn Towers when he looked at the green dial of his ‘indiglo’ wrist watch. Darkness had already melted in with the light breeze into the rail compartment. Just as he finished taking stock of time from the dial of his clock, his mind raced away somewhere, flapping like a butterfly. But he tried to hold it back and listen attentively to the ticking of the clock. But how was that going to be possible? The loud, harsh and incessant rhythmic sound of the moving train – nothing could be heard at present, over that din.

 

He had deliberately boarded the second class compartment of the Brahmaputra Express in Delhi. But he had not been able to find a moment of peace there. Stifling heat, the ugly surrounding, the smoke of biri and cigarettes, the chattering of the passengers, the loud exhortations of the ferry-wallahs , the singing and the music,… in the middle of all of that in the seat in front of him an asthmatic old woman… who from time to time, like a fish that had been picked out of water, would convulse up in agony, caused by severe difficulty in breathing, her terrifying screams shaking up the whole compartment. Then her white-haired husband would hastily put the ‘inhaler’ into her mouth and spray in a dose of salbutamol compound. Slowly the body of the lady would calm down, she would fall asleep without another word or gesture, and with exhausted worn out movements, the old man would put her withered face into the brisk stream of breeze flowing in through the window. Of course Phukan has got quite used to the process by now. Not just that, he had even begun to enjoy the actions of the old couple. The two of them hardly talked to each other, all communication between them being conducted through gestures of their eyes and faces… and even in the midst of their problems, at some moments their faces would light up with radiant smiles … and … and …seeing all that Phukan would begin to wonder seriously about the incredibly intimate bond that could exist between people… their affections, their camaraderie… how was it possible… how?

 

To get away from that thought Phukan opened the Time magazine which he had been holding in his hand. In this issue there was a detailed analysis and discussion of a very serious topic – the future of humanity, by many scholars and experts. Alan Hayward had already declared that ‘Humanity is in doldrums’. On the other hand another expert named Luis Kramer wrote with great hope that ‘Humanity will not be beaten’. Phukan suddenly remembered…gosh, wasn’t that a famous line from one of the Chaplin movies…? In any case he got ready to read the article. … ‘We should be rather optimistic….’ But suddenly a kind of disgust spread over Phukan’s face…the dry, harsh and broken voice of the by-now-already-familiar old muriwallah was heard – he was slowly progressing through the corridor. “Hot muri… fresh muri… hot muri….,” he called out. He had got onto the train at some station after the train had entered Bengal and once, in front of the old man’s eyes, when the asthmatic old lady had begun to writhe up in pain and was unable to breathe, he had put down his basket on the floor and had got very agitated in trying to get help for the old lady. In the meantime he had made his way to their cabin and stopped in front of it; he looked for a while at the old lady’s pain-stricken face, then at her husband with very concerned eyes and then asked in Bengali, putting in a lot of gentleness into his harsh voice, “Is she feeling a little better now, Dada ?... everything will be all right… everything will be all right…Keep your faith in God… everything is his wish and mercy.” In order to reassure them the old muriwallah brought a soft smile to his face… and immediately afterwards began to announce his wares to the passengers in his earlier manner as he proceeded along the corridor.

 

Outside it was quite dark. Making its loud, harsh and incessant sound the train prgressed, slicing through the darkness. Through the window at times quite suddenly, a light could be seen in a house, and then it would be left behind. At other times one or the other passenger-filled small train station would pass by, somewhere the glare of light from the piercing headlights of the many cars waiting at a level crossing would enter through one end of the compartment and quickly disappear at the other end. Subconsciously Phukan’s hands touched his beard-filled cheeks – he had not shaved for several days -- in the dim light of the compartment, his eyes casually rolled over the faces of his fellow passengers in the compartment. He noticed that even after travelling all this while together, they were still observing all his gestures and actions, they were stealing glances at his white hairy arms and legs which were sticking out from the sleeveless vest and the Bermuda that he was wearing, staring at the CD player and headphones hanging from and around his head and neck… which he was now using for what could be called a ‘practical purpose’. Whenever the noise in the compartment became unbearable or the shrieks of the old lady threatened to become too shrill, he plugged on his head-phones and switched on his player… and then all the noise got subsumed in the music of Beatles and Smokey.

 

So far, Nijan Phukan had not been able to ‘adjust’ to his environment… to this sort of abrupt break in rhythm and falling out from his usual orbit. On arriving from faraway New York he had certainly felt the smell of the earth and the air of his homeland …perhaps it was these smells that had pulled him back to his own country… but… but still the atmosphere and his surroundings seemed strange and impersonal to him. As if nobody was ready to welcome him any more… not really… and repeatedly he had this feeling as if time was standing still, surely it must be standing still… the hands of the clocks have frozen. But looking, with immense disbelief and suspicion, at the dial of his watch, he was proven wrong. Denied and hurt, he disbelieved everything, and cried out in his mind “Ah, how strange…!”

 

At that moment, that very morning, a huge rush must certainly have started in New York, an endless commotion of fast-moving cars and buses, the mechanical roar of rail and tram, strange and varied, numerous different people running for their lives, fretting and struggling, shouting and screaming – cries of desperation. One lost track of night and day, as if the boundless sky filled with lofty skyscrapers had got trapped in the dial of the clock and had stopped, after fluttering awhile, becoming just a mirror of the means to measure the passing of night and day. That clock…that clock…in New York it was possibly the only machine that moved so slowly…it moved even slower than the beating of the human heart…

 

He was twenty-five or twenty-six years old then. One day he had started out for New York. Oh, what love he had for humans and for the world then, he was so committed…he had a dream of immersing himself in the life-long service to man … in the service of humanity…and that journey was part of that dream…a commitment to get trained and educated and to return home. But…how strange …that one day he had got trapped in a kind of spell there… he had become a pure ‘careerist’…even New York did not refuse him… he got carried away in the golden flood of leisure, luxury and plenty…and one day what a fearful realisation that was…the ceaseless cacophony of machines, the roar of factories, the crying and screaming of man and machine, an all-consuming mechanical and animal-like existence – frightful and intolerable, his consciousness had screamed out, shrieked in agitation and desperation, a great fear and terror made every hair on his body stand on end…something started nibbling, without his knowledge, at his heart and ate up a part of it…consumed it piece by piece…some part of his heart got emptied forever…empty like a dark, vacuous cave…and there was now this huge ‘vaccum’…!

 

In the moving train unknowingly Phukan rubbed his hairy chest with both hands, an uncertain and sad look spread over his face, a long sigh began to echo in the depths of his heart…That part of his heart that had got emptied…it had become absolutely empty…with what was it filled usually, what was it actually, was there no scientific explanation for that? That even a scientist or a physician does not know…really very strange…he himself had not been able to figure that out… It was probably just an undiscovered existence or feeling…strange! Even though the thought came to his mind very often…as if some valuable possession had fallen off somewhere…and was lost forever…!

 

No, no,… Nijan Phukan would like to consciously forget all those thoughts… forget those worries…want to run away from them… He had that feeling that he was an absconder, a ‘fugitive’. There he was, having run away without saying anything to anybody after having lived for such a long while in his comfortable house of cards, from his prosperous life and from his family that he had etched out for himself in due course of time in New York. “That was all maya, all mere illusion,” as if someone was echoing those words into his ears. And Phukan thought, with great certainty, that it was the unknown empty cave in his heart that was making him unwell and irritated, here it would be filled again…again he would find the familiar smells of air, water and earth (which his nose has already sensed)… and …and… maybe they were still the same… they, Paramesh, Bhabananda, Bina and the others,… they must be still all right in their places… surely it would be possible to meet them again … and…and… after all had he not come this time just to meet them…

 

At night he could sleep very well. Ah! What peace! When commerce and economic worries decide the fate of every square feet of land, when every cubic feet of air is used up by diesel fumes, the scraping of machines and screws, the maze of profit and loss, and the dust, dirt and smell is illuminated under energy-efficient fluorescent brightness, the universe filled with unnecessary items, and in that state, in this world there still exists today a Paramesh, a pair Bhabananda-Bina, who are not impressed by tasteless sky-touching heights of reinforced concrete, who do not want tenants, do not want an extra 300 rupees—or maybe they want it (who does not want money) but who still feel that it is more important to keep alive a sacred memory, who still feel it is more important for the soul’s vitality to have a piece of open sky, and for a blast of fresh air to touch the heart-beats, for the solace of the eyes a piece of green field, a Bina tree, where the mind will come to blossom, the still night and the unmoving mid-day, a verandah, an old echoing sound, a blurred loved surrounding… in Nijan Phukan’s mind many old images shimmered before coming into focus. Sitting in one corner of their printing press at home, Jetuki baiti is setting the lead letter-types to compose a part of her favourite story and from other rooms come floating in the khatlak…khatlak…khatlak…sound of the treadle machine. And at this moment he starts thinking again…yes…yes… they Paramesh, Bhabananda, Bina and the others must certainly be there… and even… that writer of Bina Kutir he himself is also there, most certainly!

 

He is sweating profusely. The rotating ceiling fan of the compartment which was making a gharak…gharak… sound and the swift breeze that was flowing in through the windows have not been able to bring him any relief. However Phukan observes that his fellow-passengers do not seem to be bothered by that. He looks at them in surprise and annoyance and in the next moment glances at the green dial of his wrist-watch…Ooh, a lot of time has passed by…has passed by. Seeing him, one of the two young men who were sitting by his side and chatting continuously with each other, looked at his watch and cried out “It is already too late” and how surprising… suddenly Phukan jerks up… as if someone had suddenly lashed him with a whip… ‘it is already too late’… one day in New York someone had also said the same line to him in a certain context and …even then… even then without knowing why, he had been a little shocked to hear that and had remained agitated for some time. Quietly, Phukan tries to listen attentively to the discussion of the two young friends: they were roundly abusing the US saying things like, “Those bastards want to be the global police” and “the words of Sigmund Freud are right – ‘America is a mistake, a giant mistake.’” After that there is a change of topic and one of them is asking – “This Roland Barthes has developed theories on everything, hasn’t he? Well, why do the French tend to theorise everything, do you have any idea?” The subject is serious, both of them seem engaged with the thought for quite a while, after which one of them goes on to formulate yet another theory and announces it – “That humans are getting transformed into a sort of mechanised entity is certain”… and finally the usual topic -- sex. Their tones automatically get lower, one of them makes a comparative study of the bottoms of his girlfriend with those of some heroine from Hindi cinema, but the other one is one step ahead, without caring for his reputation, he is talking about the time when he had visited a brothel, and was satisfied by just looking at the beauty of the girl’s body – “Believe me, I did not do anything else”. Phukan enjoys all this quietly, sitting amid the unbearable heat and the suffocating atmosphere inside the train compartment. Time and again he was about to break into word and towards the end, he was about to burst into laughter. He controlled himself somehow. But just at that moment again an ‘anti-climax’ – suddenly the old woman starts screaming out terrifyingly, her whole body convulsed with pain. Her old husband, who was about to fall asleep, also wakes up very hurriedly and …gropes around for the ‘inhaler’, thrusts it into the old woman’s mouth and starts spraying her with it. But gosh, suddenly desperation spreads all over his face… “My God… all is finished. Oh my dear Lord… what will happen to my woman now?” Saying this he sends a look filled with despair and helplessness at Phukan and the boys, brings down the thermos flask hanging on the wall and tries to pour some water into the old lady’s mouth. -- Phukan suddenly becomes active – “Don’t pour water, please don’t. ‘Pump some air off I mean’, put your mouth into her mouth and keep blowing into it for some time.” With a look of uncertainty on his face, the old man does that for some time. After the lady calms down a little bit, on Phukan’s suggestion, the old man begins to massage her chest, even while talking to Phukan in a sad, upset and hopeless voice, “Do you know I had taken her to Andhra Pradesh … there is a kind of fish treatment there…. We had gone there to do that… she ate the fish but did not get any relief… On our return I wanted to take her to the AIIMS in Delhi. But what could we do… there was not enough money left in the end. If one does not have any money there is no value for human life these days, you know.” His hands keep moving over the ribs on the lady’s chest and her shrivelled breasts, and at some point tears begin to trickle down his cheeks.

 

Phukan removes his gaze from the old man’s face. Actually, for some reason in his heart he feels no sympathy for the old woman. Even though he knows that at any moment now, even at this very moment in front of them on this running train, the old lady may decide to embrace death….And then maybe it would become impossible to stay on in this cabin listening to the old man’s cries…packing his bags and belongings he must go and quietly find a place in some other cabin…! Again, out of habit, he looks at his watch, mechanically holds open a page of the Time… a few advertisements and that article which he had meant to read for quite a while now… “Humanity will not be beaten”… his eyes sweep lazily over a ‘nude photo’ of a young and beautiful woman… and finally his eyes go and rests on, and remains glued to the body of the agonised, skeletal and almost lifeless body of the old woman…The old man is still massaging her chest with loving gentleness, her chest convulsing up from time to time. Phukan looks out through the window into the darkness outside. A swift breeze immediately beats against his face, hair and clothes…

 

A woman’s breast…a woman’s breast… Phukan’s mind abruptly races back to the remote past…at Rana Mama ’s wedding …yes…yes, Basanti had asked him to accompany her to her home -- she wanted to go home to dress up before going with the bridegroom’s marriage party. As they had proceeded on the village road to her house, in the thick darkness of the bamboo grove on their path, his body heat had suddenly shot up, his breadth had quickened, his voice had become hoarse with a kind of excitement. Before Basanti could guess his state he had encircled her from behind, clasping her soft breasts with both hands…Ooh, what a charmed moment that was. He could smell the Pond’s powder of her face and the Gandhamalati oil in her hair. And suddenly saying, ‘Shameless creature!’ she had broken away and had walked briskly home. He had followed her guiltily... Oh, that day…that day…that wild intoxication…that unique love-filled day had flown away somewhere silently, without a trace! Later when his age began to ebb away while trying to carve a career for himself in New York, Irina, a child of the topless culture, had come and settled into his life. But he never could find any comparable intoxication from any part of her body… that fragrance of oil and powder. By then of course he had lost all enthusiasm, the irresistible desire and wish to open up life’s mysteries. Ooh! That unceasing, fast, breathless, problematic life in New York had blunted the edge of his desire for all physical and mental experiences in a surprising way. In the midst of all the roaring machines all thoughts of love had been cruelly squeezed out and heartlessness had killed everything. In that luxurious apartment in New York when sometimes Irina, a little sozzled after a few drinks and with her mouth stinking, would come up to him suddenly and suggest to him in a strange voice “Come on Darling, let’s have a quickie” and when the two of them would thereafter lose themselves in the darkness intoxicated by that primordial game -- at that time Phukan would often feel like a machine and he would suddenly remember the moving treadle machine in the press back home…he would remember looking with unbounded eagerness and being overwhelmed on seeing Basanti’s full and rounded breasts in the shadow of a closed room, a few days after Rana Mama’s wedding.

 

A sudden jerk of the train interrupted Phukan’s train of thoughts. In front of his eyes floated past images of Irina and their two children Jimmy and Jaynee, and his entire body became numb with a sort of sadness and guilt. “You son of a bitch…,” Irina had shrieked out helplessly on the phone the last time. He was shocked suddenly ‘son of a bitch’… “Oh, I am not…Irina….” but by then she had put down the cradle of the receiver.

He waited a while, huddled. But then it was as if suddenly someone had touched a still ball on a billiard’s table …and a red ball came dancing in to his mind …he had surely come away having lost something…no, no, it was not Irina, Jimmy and Jaynee, it was something unearthly and priceless…as if it had come out of his heart and had fallen off somewhere along the way…as if the inside of his heart had dried out just as the shrivelled dry breasts of the old lady in front of him had taken the place of her juicy-filled out breasts of her youth. Without knowing, tears trickled down, and made their way to his bearded cheeks.

 

Phukan gets up softly from his seat. He proceeds along the corridor towards the door. He holds on to the two handles of the door, leans out and feels as if the powerful gust of wind wants to tear away from him all his worries and fears. A soft gentle breeze touches his nose and with great firmness Phukan tells himself -- everything is all right here, all right, even maybe they…even they Paramesh, Bhabananda and Bina, even they must be all right.

 

“What news, Dada? Enjoying the fresh air?”

 

Phukan is abruptly woken up from his thoughts by these words spoken in Bengali. After straightening himself he sees the muriwallah standing behind him in the dim light, smiling. “Oh, it’s you, haven’t you seen how much trouble we are having with that old lady? That is why I am standing here to stretch my limbs.” Saying this he looks at his watch. The night was slowly getting deep, getting thick. He asks the old man, “It is getting quite late, are you not going home?”

 

“I will get off at the station just after Farakka bridge. Today the train is very late. That is why it has become so dark. But in my house, there is only my wife, she has got used to my late hours.”

 

Hearing the frightening, dry and parched sound of the muriwallah’s voice Phukan is disturbed. He is suddenly seized with the curiosity to look inside the old man’s mouth and throat. “Come, come, let me see why your voice is like this…come here.”

 

“What is the point in looking? I have gone to many doctors, undergone a lot of treatment, nothing has worked. I have a terrible ache in my throat, but I still keep smiling. After all, I have to sell my muri, you see, there is no way out….”

 

Phukan almost forces the old man to open his mouth in the dim light of the compartment. He somehow tolerates the nasty stink that emanates from the mouth and then begins to wash his hands carefully in the basin. At that time it was as if a wave of hot blood is slowly rising up in his body….Ooh, there were frightening symptoms of cancer everywhere in the old man’s mouth…but he still carried on shouting out his wares with that pain-torn shredded voice, putting on an artificial smile on his face…what a struggle to carry on living, what a yearning for life. Phukan’s anger gets stronger – he begins to grumble and groan mentally. These fellows, what is the matter with them? Ha! ‘All a bunch of crazy dogs’, ‘absolute nonsense!’ What is the sense of carrying on like this, play acting, what is the sense in clutching on to empty air to just remain alive? What is the great fascination in that? What does it matter, whether they remain alive or not. It is not as if the earth will become lighter without them, or will become unbalanced and meaningless. Why do they not embrace death… ‘suicide’ or ‘euthanasia’... ‘idiots’, ‘idiots’!

 

Suddenly the roar of the train is lost in the louder clanging of metal against metal as the train goes over a bridge, the jolts making the compartments sway from side to side. Piercing the darkness, through the window, intense light beams enter the compartment. The train has reached Farakka. Like a well-lighted iron-cage the train moves forward onto the Farakka bridge.

 

“Here we are already at Farakka, a little further is Maldah station.”

 

Phukan hears the words of the old muriwallah. But the fury that had ascended to his brain earlier has not yet subsided. Furthermore, his body is beginning to tremble with a kind of agitation. From the door of the compartment he leans out again and looks at the dark flowing waters of the Ganga, looks forward and backward at the train twisting and turning, and in the same motion gets back into the compartment and looks into the corridor … and suddenly, in one rapid movement, catches hold of the muriwallah who was standing behind him by the neck and in one swift push flings him out of the train into the waters of the Ganga. It is as if suddenly a whole garland of Sewali flowers has snapped and the petals were falling freely around. The muri that fell off from the old man’s basket were beginning to fall slowly into the water…they began to look like the petals of Sewali flowers….

 

But Phukan did not remain there for even a moment. “Bunch of idiots…crazy dogs…,” grimacing to himself he moves towards his own cabin. Everyone in the compartment is asleep, including the two young men and all the others. Even the exhausted and worn out husband of the sick lady has fallen asleep in his sleeper bunk, even though the old lady’s face still shows signs of unbroken agony and suffering…and immense respiratory problems. Phukan opens his briefcase and takes out his stethoscope. He pushes one end into this ears and the other end onto the old lady’s chest…he can hear the brisk beating of the old lady’s heart and for no known reason a cruel smile spreads over his face. Alert and cautious, he casts a quick glance all around him, then takes the stethoscope to a certain part of the old lady’s throat, and presses it down with great force – after all he was a famous ‘surgeon’ in New York. He has immense precision in his hands – the old lady’s body shakes up once in a very strange way and then becomes still.

 

After putting the stethoscope back in his briefcase he moves slowly to the basin and washes his hands. He lets the old man sleep on his berth and lies down on the empty sleeper over the lifeless old lady’s body. “In any case…she has got her freedom.” He opens the Time and tries to look for that article again and once more his eyes run over the title “Humanity will not be beaten.” … You should be rather optimistic about the fact that…

 

There are loud and chaotic sounds suddenly in all directions. The frenzied movements of passengers, hawkers and vendors—screaming and shouting—commotion…well…that probably means the train has reached Maldah station. Phukan presses the open Time to his chest, over all that noise he hears the striking of a clock somewhere in the station. He holds up the ‘indiglo’ watch with the green dial,… yes, it is exactly 12 o’clock – in New York it is now noon!

 

[Translated from the Assamese original titled “Madhya Ratrir Ghanta-Sabda” by Meenaxi Barkotoki ]

About the author :

 

Bitopan Borborah is a senior Journalist and film critic associated with ‘The Assam Tribune Group’, Guwahati, Assam. He is also an acclaimed short story writer having four collections to his credit. A past fellow of Ministry of Culture and recipient of Munin Borkotoky Award for his first collection, Borborah is the founder Festival Director of CineASA Guwahati International Film Festival. Being a member of FIPRESCI, he had served as jury member in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pusan, Moscow and Cannes International Film Festival.

 

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