Translated from Bengali by Somdatta Mandal
With the onset of winter in our city, cholera broke out. The very mention of cholera in those days would make people petrified with fear. If anyone heard that cholera had broken out in one area, they would not stay there anymore. If anyone died, it would be difficult to find people to cremate him. But even in such difficult times, there was one person in our locality who never objected to it. His name was Gopal-khuro and his aim in life was cremating the dead. If anyone was seriously ill, he would go to the doctor everyday and find out about his condition. As soon as he heard that there was no hope left, he would arrive there at least two hours ahead, barefooted and with a gamchha on his shoulders. A few of us were his disciples. He would tell us with a serious face, “Be a bit careful tonight. You should respond instantly if I call you. Do you remember the scriptures? “Rajadware smashane cha…..”
Yes, we do remember it. We will come with our gamchas as soon as you call us.”
“Ok, Ok, This is what we want. There is no more virtuous deed in the world than this.
Lalu was also part of our group. Except when he was going out on his contractor’s job, he never refused. That evening, a morose looking khuro came and told us, “I think Bishtu Pundit’s wife will not be saved this time.”
All of us were shocked. In our childhood days we had all studied under this very poor schoolmaster. He was congenially sick and always depended on his wife. He had no one else in the world to call his own and I have never seen any more timid and helpless person other than him.
It was around eight at night when the pundit’s wife was carried in a rope cot from the bedroom into the courtyard. The pundit stared at us vacantly and nothing in the world can be compared to such a look. One can never forget it for a whole life.
While we were lifting up the dead body, the pundit asked us very slowly, “If I do not go with you, who will singe the mouth of the dead at cremation?”
Before anyone could reply, Lalu said, “I will do that job, Punditmoshai. You are our guru and in that sense, she is our mother." We all knew that it was impossible for the pundit to walk all the way to the cremation ground. Our Bangla school was hardly a five-minutes walk but he would take more than half an hour’s time to come panting all the way.
After remaining quiet for some time Panditmoshai said, “Won’t you put some sindoor upon her head before taking her, Lalu?”
“Of course I’ll do, Punditmoshai.” Saying this, he gave a big leap into the room, brought out the container full of sindoor and emptied it on the corpse’s head.
Chanting religious intonations we left the house with its mistress’s dead body departing forever while the punditmoshai stood quietly with his hands resting on the panel of the open door.
The cremation ground was situated about six miles away on the banks of the Ganges. When we reached there and placed the cot with the dead body on the floor, it was two o’clock at night. Lalu held on to the cot and squatted on the floor with his feet spread out. In order to ward off their tiredness, some of the others just lay down here and there. It was a bright lunar fortnight and the empty stretches of the sandy cremation ground spread out endlessly in the moonlight. A cold north wind across the Ganges gave rise to big waves, some of which were breaking almost near Lalu’s feet. There was still no sign of the burning logs which usually came from the city by bullock carts. We had already informed the domson our way here. They lived about a mile away and no one knew how long they would take to arrive.
All of a sudden thick grey clouds rose from the horizon across the river and strong northerly winds started blowing towards this side of the riverbank. Warily Gopal-khuro said, “The signs are not good – it might rain. We shall be in trouble if we are drenched in this winter night.” There were no shelters nearby, not even a big tree. In the mango orchard at some distance there were a few gardeners' huts but it was not an easy job to run so far out there.
Dark clouds gradually covered the whole sky, the moonlight disappeared in the darkness, and we could hear the hissing sound of fast-falling rain. Like sharp arrows, a few drops first pierced us and by the time we could make up our minds as to what should be done, heavy downpour began. To save themselves, everyone ran helter-skelter leaving the dead body behind.
When the rain stopped about an hour later, we all came back one by one. The sky had cleared, the moonlight reappeared as clear as day. The cartload of firewood and other ingredients had arrived in the meantime and they were preparing to leave. But the domes were nowhere in sight.
“These people are always like that,” said Gopal Khuro. “They do not like to come out of their houses in winter.”
Moni said, “But why didn’t Lalu return till now? He said he would light the pyre. Has he run away home in fear?”
Annoyed with Lalu, Khuro replied,” He is like that. If he was so frightened, why was he sitting down holding the dead body? Even if thunder and lightening had struck me, I would not have left the dead body.”
“What happens when one leaves the dead body, Khuro?”
“What happens? A lot of things happen. After all this is the cremation ground.”
“Would you not feel scared to wait alone in the cremation ground?”
“Scared? Me? Do you know that I have cremated at least a thousand dead bodies?”
Moni could not say anything else after this. Really, Khuro had reasons to be proud.
Picking up a shovel that was lying on the floor, Khuro said, “I am digging the pit. You all give a hand in bringing the wood.”
Khuro was busy digging, we were carrying the wood, when suddenly Noru said, “Hasn’t the dead body swollen up to double its size?”
“Without looking anywhere Khuro replied, “Won’t it swell? All the blankets and quilts have been drenched in the rain.”
“But cotton is supposed to squeeze smaller when wet, not swell up.”
“You have too much of intelligence. Do what you are doing,” replied Khuro in anger.
The job of collecting the wood was almost done. Noru had kept a constant watch over the cot of the dead body. He stopped suddenly and said, “Khuro, the dead body seems to be moving.”
Khuro had finished his work. Throwing the spade away he said, “I have never seen such a coward like you, Noru. Why do you volunteer for such work? Go and fetch the remaining wood. Let me arrange the pyre. You donkey!”
A couple of minutes elapsed. Now Moni suddenly jumped a few steps back and warily said, “ No, Khuro. Things don’t seem to be all right. The dead body really seemed to move.”
Giving out a loud laugh Khuro smiled and said, “You youngsters, do you want to scare me? Someone who has cremated over a thousand dead bodies?”
“See it’s moving again,” said Noru.
“Yes, moving. It has become a ghost to eat you up”. But even before he could finish his sentence, the wrapped up dead body sat up kneeling on the cot and shouted in a shrill, fearful voice, “No, no. Not Noru. I will eat Gopal.”
Scared to death, we started running as fast as we could. There was a huge pile of wood in front of Gopal-khuro. Unable to run behind us, he went and jumped into the Ganges. Standing abreast in that cold water, he kept on shouting, “Oh my God, I’m going to die. The ghost is going to eat me up. Ram –Ram- Ram-”
The ghost on the other hand uncovered his face and kept on shouting, “Hey Nirmal, hey Moni, hey Noru, don’t run away. I am Lalu. Come back, come back—”
Lalu’s voice reached us. Ashamed at our stupidity, all of us came back. Shivering in the cold, Gopal-khuro also came up to the embankment.
Lalu paid obeisance to him and added in a shy tone, “Everyone left in fear of the rain. But I could not leave the dead body and go, so I had gone under the quilt.”
“Very good, dear. You’ve done a wise job. Now go, smear yourself with the holy mud and take a dip in the Ganges. I’ve never seen such a wicked boy in my life.”
But actually he had forgiven him wholeheartedly. He realized that displaying such fearlessness was impossible for him. Actually, staying alone at night with a dead body inflicted by cholera, amidst all the infected bedding was no mean feat.
While lighting the pyre, Khuro objected, “No, this cannot be done. If she comes to know about it, his mother will never see me again.”
The cremation was over. After a dip in the Ganges, the sun was just rising when we headed home.
“Rajadware smashane cha…”: The Sanskrit shloka states that a person should always be present in at least these five places – at ceremonies, during famine, in political unrest, during the summons of the king, and during cremation of the dead.
Doms: A person of low caste (Hindu caste) whose duty is to burn the dead and look after the crematorium.
Published in Parabaas, May 10, 2006
The original story
[Lalu*] by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay
is included in Chhelebelar Galpa ('Childhood stories'), a collection of short stories for children first published by M. C. Sarkar &Sons., Kolkata in Baisakh, 1345 (BE). Actually several of the short stories bear the same title "Lalu", a character drawn after a Rajendranath Majumdar or Raju, a childhood friend of Saratchandra from Bhagalpur, Bihar, and immortalized also as "Indranath" in Saratchandra's famous novel Srikanta.
Somdatta Mandal is a professor of English Literature at Vishvabharati, Santiniketan. Apart from publication of several books and scholarly articles in reputed literary journals, her special area of interest is in ...
Illustrated by Rajarshi Debnath. Rajarshi has been regularly illustrating for Parabaas. He is currently based at Rochester, NY.
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