A short story by Dibyendu Palit
It was very early in the morning. Mathuranath, as usual, took his holy dip in the Ganga. Barefoot and clad in a dhoti, a namavali wrapped around his body like a shawl, he was hastening back home. In the copper vessel in his hand, there was holy water. His feet were mud-smeared, he was mumbling slokas from the Gita. This daily ritual protected him from the cold during winter and gave him comfort in summer. In the cool half-light of early morning, he was walking with rapid strides, all by himself.
Mathuranath had been doing this for the last 30 years, except when seriously ill. Ten or twelve years ago, there were people to accompany him. Some of them were dead now, a few had become infirm, and the rest had left Rampur. After the death of Banwarilal, the last of his companions, he was all alone.
Now, every morning as he touched the water of the river, a strange feeling came over him. It seemed as though he belonged to the river, and it waited for him daily at dawn. And when he came near, the river paused for a while to touch him. He felt as if the river would miss him when he died.
About a decade ago, the river hadn’t yet moved so far away. Mathuranath used to go to the Khanjarpur Ghat, almost two miles from here. Bot now there was no river at Khanjarpur, The thin stream of water that flowed through mud, weeds, mustard fields barely wet one’s feet. At Pirpur Ghat, though, the Ganga was still a river, quite deep and wide and the water as clear as crystal.
At home no one liked his going to the river so early in the morning. His wife Kaushalya, daughter Bindiya, son Bipin and daughter-in-law Neeta — even the servants Dayaram and Lachhmi — were against it. He was all of 62 now, and these were bad times. Although nothing had happened here for quite some time, fear lurked in the minds of the people of Rampur. No one wanted to be alone.
Bipin, Mathuranath’s son, was a lawyer. He worked both in Patna and Rampur. Bipin would often hear his mother plead with Mathuranath not to go bathing at the Ganga at dawn.
“Babuji, will you lose your religion if you take your morning bath at home? One must be judicious at this old age. Think of us, see how mother weeps,” Bipin tried to reason with his father Mathuranath.
“Look, don’t worry at all for me,” Mathuranth would reply with a smile. “We have our own ideas of religion. I am a Hindu. If my soul is pure and my faith unwavering, my actions will remain true as well. I have been going every day to the Ganga to take a bath for more than thirty years. Has anything ever gone wrong?”
“But what if something does happen?”
“Don’t bother, Bipin. Nothing will happen to me.”
Mathuranath had no faith in the theory of karma. Although he never renounced the world to take up sanyas, he always tried to tread the path of piety. It was there in his blood but he never aspired after salvation of the soul. Bipin saw how pious his father was, how he was conscious of what was right and what was wrong, how he respected his religion and the sacred thread which he always wore. The Hindus, the Muslims, everyone in the neighbourhood knew and respected him. There was a time when people would regularly call on him and spend hours listening to him while drinking sherbet. Now, aside from a handful of those who were advanced in years, like Kanhaiyalalji, Dayacharan Misra, Jankinath Chowdhury, none came regularly.
It was especially because of Mathuranath’s age that Bipin worried about him so much. He had developed complications of the heart. He used to have a mild pain in the chest and in his left hand. Bipin had to take his father to Patna for treatment. That was three years ago. The doctor had advised Mathuranath not to carry on his normal activities. But he continued going to the Ganga, anyway.
Bipin feared that if something happened, none would get to know. Even the road was bad. Every day Mathuranath went out in the dark. He could stumble and hurt himself, or he could even be run over by those trucks coming from Patna, Mokameh, Bhagalpur or Sahebganj.
These fears were not without reason. From their house at Kotwali, the bathing ghat at Pirpur was quite a long way. Not less than twelve miles, up and down. No one covered this distance nowadays on foot. One did not need to. That part of Rampur, which still couldn’t develop into a town, was a sprawling area of about two square miles. The kotwali thana, the station, the Hanuman temple and the bazaar were on one side and the post office, the hospital, the Ram temple and the kachheri on the other. The density of population was thicker in the central parts but sparser on the outskirts. Bihar State Transport buses plied between Nathchawk and Chhanderi, passing through Rampur. Every now and then, one of these buses recklessly rumbled down the highway, the only road the people of Rampur were familiar with.
Most people rode cycles and cycle-rickshaws, a few had cars. There were also those horse-drawn ekkas and cow-driven carts. Since the riot two years ago, only the Hindus lived here. The others had migrated to Chhanderi. People did not get out of their neighbourhood unless it was absolutely necessary.
Since the riot two years ago, the place belonged exclusively to the Hindus, all the Muslims having migrated to Chhanderi. A few Hindus came here from Chhanderi. And although in the past Rampur was a Congress stronghold, in the assembly elections now, people voted mostly for the BJP.
By the time Mathuranath came near his house, the sun was up. The soft, warm glow of the first light filled the air. His forehead was covered with sweat. The wet namavali told him that it wouldn’t be long before it was summer.
Either Bindiya or Neeta, whoever was not menstruating, would open the door for him when he reached home. They would take the pot of Ganga water to the prayer room. With Dayaram’s help Mathuranath would first wash himself at the tubewell. Then, in the prayer room, he would sit quietly in front of the images of Ram and Krishna with his eyes closed. With a wood-apple leaf, he would sprinkle holy water and sandal-paste on the idols’ feet, and put a few drops of that water on his lips. After he was done, he would sit on a charpoy out on the verandah. Kaushalya would bring cold milk for him. He would have the milk and then, little by little, he would get busy in household chores.
As he was approaching his home, Mathuranath noticed a small crowd under the big banyan tree near his house. There was also a man standing with his bicycle there. Before he could see anything else, a Sultangunj-Chhanderi bus rushed past, blowing up dust and blurring his vision.
He walked up to the crowd. There was a middle-aged man lying on the ground. His pyajamas were so badly torn that they hardly covered his body. And except for the tattered shirt, he was naked from the waist up.
His bare body and the torn clothes were smeared with mud. It looked as if the man had been lying unconscious in the gutter until someone dragged him up. There were ulcers all over his body. A few were small, some were about to heal but a number of them were badly inflamed.
Mathuranath couldn’t take his eyes off the man. The stranger’s right eye was closed, the left was partly open. There were flies on his ulcers. But the man wasn’t dead yet.
The people standing around the man, exchanging views animatedly, became quiet as they saw Mathuranath. He stood still and shook his head in dismay. He had walked past that spot on his way to the Ganga, but hadn’t noticed anything. But it was pitch dark then and may be, even then, the man had been lying there like that!
Mathuranath glanced at the faces in the crowd and asked, How long is he lying here?”
“We don’t know, Punditji,” someone said, “we found him just now.”
“Poor fellow! He looks like he’s dying,“ said another.
“But he is still breathing! He must be alive. If we take him to the hospital immediately, he may be saved,” Mathuranath said.
He looked at the young man who stood there holding his bicycle and asked him his name.
“Girdhari, my son, please inform the police that a man is lying unconscious here. They should arrange to take him to the hospital.”
“Sir, I am going to the station. I’ve to catch the train,” the man said.
“The police station will be on your way,” said Mathuranath. “Please go and tell them. It will take you only two minutes. Please go, my son, and go quickly!”
Mathuranath looked blankly at Girdhari disappearing on his bicycle. He turned to the man once again. As the rays of the sun became intense, there were more flies swarming around the man. Now they spread all over the man’s body — on his closed eyelids, beside his lips, over his hands, chest, abdomen. Mathuranath noticed a slight trembling, but soon the man was still again. The corners of his lips twitched, he tried to open his mouth. Is the man thirsty? Mathuranath couldn’t be sure because his gullet was still.
Mathuranath sighed and muttered,”Oh my god, doesn’t this poor fellow have anyone of his own among the people here? What peace will he have, lying here like this?”
Mathuranath hoped that the police would come quickly when they heard he had sent for them. They would carry him either in a cow-drawn cart or a rickshaw to the hospital. Hopefully, the man would survive.
Back home, he was sad and somehow could not get over this feeling. “Listen, there is a man lying next to the big tree on the road, he is unconscious!” Mathuranath told Dayaram. “The police station has been informed for taking the man to the hospital. Go, look after him. If he looks thirsty, pour a few drops of water in his mouth. Hurry up!”
Dayaram was his old servant, never disobedient. “Which caste does he belong to, sir? he asked shakily.
Mathuranath was leaving the courtyard, but he stopped and turned. There was a hint of annoyance on his tranquil face.
“Do you want to know the caste of a dying man? He is a human being,” he said and went towards the prayer room.
The people of Rampur were curious about life and death, but they had no interest in either. During the riots, when thirty-three corpses were discovered in four days — not to mention the eighteen wounded people– there was fear and anxiety. But soon, people drifted back into the stupor of indifference. It seemed as though people died just to keep the residents of Rampur from forgetting the Ram nam satya hai chant. And people seemed to die easily here, without hassles. A few died in brawls, over land or women. But that was rare.
The Rampur police, too, had nothing to spur them into activity. They would often take their share of a thief’s booty. And the thief would work for them, give them messages, draw water from the well, and if he remained obedient, they would even release him soon.
At the time of the riots, twenty-nine people were killed on the first day and the police could hardly do anything. A special force had to be brought from Patna to keep the situation under control. The police of Rampur knew that nothing depended on them–the people went about their business as they pleased.
And about the local hospital, the less said the better. If the superintending doctor’s bicycle had a flat tyre, he would curse the government and would not see patients until it was repaired. The twenty-odd beds at the hospital were there for anybody, not the patients, to lie down on. If the doctor had more visitors at home than he could accommodate, he would have as many hospital beds vacated as he needed. Not only that, he treated patients only when they had minor illnesses. At the slightest hint of complication, he should send patients all the way to the Bhagalpur district hospital.
Mathuranath enquired after Dayaram after finishing his rituals. He was sitting on the cot drinking his glass of cold milk. Dayaram returned to say that although he had given the man a few drops of water, most of it had fallen outside his mouth. He also said that Girdhari had come to give the message that the police couldn’t come soon.
“Why?” asked Mathuranath, concerned.
“How do I know, sir,” said Dayaram. “The hawaldar is sick and he said there aren’t enough policemen at the chowki.”
Mathuranath sat for some time with his head bent. Then he asked, “What did you see? Is he still alive?”
“Yes sir. He is alive. It looked like he was trying to move his head. And…”
“And what?” asked Mathuranath impatiently.
“Sir, Raghunath, the tobacco-seller, said that after you left the place, he urinated…A few others also said so.”
Dayaram’s words added to Mathuranath’s worry. The man could not drink water but he had urinated. All this indicated that the man was completely unconscious. And the flies and dust settling on the ulcers could worsen his condition.
It seemed that there was quite a crowd there now. What were they watching? Did they want to see how, after all the struggle for breath, the stranger would die? How could one let that happen?
Bipin wasn’t at home. He had gone to Patna to fight a case for his client. His return was due in a day or two. Bipin was someone with whom Mathuranath could discuss the matter and find a way out. Should he inform his close friend Janakinath Chowdhury, Rampur’s MLA? If Janakinath wished, he could surely do something. But he lived near Bathchowki, quite a distance from here. Yet, almost daily he visited Mathuranath in the afternoon, riding a hired cycle-rickshaw.
But who was going to call him now? And even if Mathuranath sent Dayaram, what certainty was there that Janaki would be home?
Mathuranath was getting increasingly impatient. He was sweating. His hand moved towards the hand-fan lying on the cot, but withdrew. Suddenly, he called loudly for Bindiya, his daughter.
Bindiya was in the bathroom. Neeta, Bipin’s wife, had gone to the backyard to hang the wash on the line. Kaushalya, who was pouring grain from a sack onto the winnowing tray came hurriedly as she heard her husband’s calls.
“What happened? Do you want something?”
Mathuranath looked at his wife standing beside the door and arranged his thoughts. “Please bring me two rupees — Dayaram’s rickshaw fare. He could be sent immediately to the hospital,” he said to her.
“Hospital?” asked Kaushalya.
“Yes, a sick man is lying unconscious under the tree outside. Someone must take care of him.”
Everyone in the house had already heard about the incident from Lachhmi. Kaushalya knew her husband well. Without dragging the discussion further, she went to bring the money.
Dayaram was gone, Mathuranath put on his loose cotton waistcoat, slung his gamchha over his shoulder and came out of the house.
There was now a crowd of about twenty under the tree. Bending over them under the scorching sun, Mathuranath saw a horrible sight. A shiver ran down his spine. The man was lying in the same way as before. But now, his whole body was covered with flies. The inflammations on his chest and genitals looked like beehives. But still Mathuranath could discern the slightest movement of the chest.
He started working his gamchha to shoo away the flies.
As the insects scattered, the crowd promptly drew back. It seemed that the man found a little peace as he trembled a little. His head, too, moved slightly.
Someone from the crowd said,”Punditji, you’ll have to go again to the Ganga for a bath.”
“Why?” Mathuranath was irritated.
“See those flies on your dhoti? Who knows which caste this man belongs to!” the man said.
The stranger was right. Mathuranath noticed that quite a few files had now settled over his dhoti and waistcoat. Mathuranath didn’t reply but started towards his home with a grave look on his face.
Dayaram’s visit to the hospital achieved nothing. He said, “The doctor hasn’t come yet, sir. His assistant was inside but I couldn’t meet him. The chowkidar said that he would inform the doctor as soon as he came.”
Mathuranath didn’t say a word. He breathed deeply.
Then, he called all the women of his house. There was an empty room beside the one where Dayaram slept. He asked Lachhmi to sweep the room and to put a cot inside. He would carry the man from the road and bring him in.
Kaushalya raised a mild protest. ‘Listen, you are a brahmin, “ she said.
Mathuranath eyed his wife with annoyance. “If it is not a brahmin’s job to serve mankind, then from today I’ll be a shudra,” he snorted.
Mathuranath surprised everyone. No one had ever seen such a look on his face, had never heard such strange words from him. What was even more surprising, a few quiet tears rolled down his cheeks. He wiped them with the back of his palm and mumbled,”Hey Ram!” Neeta stood beside Kaushalya . Bindiya said, ‘You’re right, father, after all he is a sick man. Dayaram, you go with Babuji. I’ll arrange everything here.”
Dayaram was obedient. Even if he had qualms, he followed Mathuranath without uttering a word. The people of Rampur had never seen such a spectacle. Two men were carrying an ulcerated, dying man of unknown caste from the road to their house. And one of them was Mathuranath!
Some of those who saw this were afraid, a few grimaced in disgust. Others, though very small in number, even nodded their heads in approval. The news spread far and wide.
The wounded man was now lying on the cot, covered by a clean sheet. Mathuranath felt relieved. He wasn’t a doctor but he knew how to nurse. He wiped the wounds carefully and then put sandal paste over them. He gave the man some medicine for fever. Then, with a spoon he tried to pour milk into the man’s mouth. Mathuranath felt the stranger’s breath. In fact, he was breathing almost normally now.
Kanhaiyalali, Janakinath and others came in the afternoon and nodded approvingly. “No matter what others would say, Mathuranath had done the right thing,” Janakinath said, “Something must be done about the police and the hospital of Rampur. Such disorder, such mismanagement can’t go on forever.” Janakinath assured the others that as soon as the man regained consciousness, he would arrange to send him to the hospital.
Bipin returned late in the evening. He was happy having won the case but he didn’t seem to be happy about what his father had done. He said, almost jokingly — “Mahatmaji used to do such things. This must be brought to the President’s attention.”
Mathuranath didn’t expect such unsympathetic words from his son. He smiled painfully. Then you’re not my son,” he said to Bipin.
“You’ve got it wrong. Babuji. I am very much your son. But the people of Rampur are not all your sons. If they had been, then we wouldn’t have seen the riots.”
Mathuranath kept silent for a while. Then, in a firm voice which reflected his confidence, he said, “Perhaps. But I’ll have to act according to the dictates of my dharma.”
The following day, Mathuranath went to the Ganga in the morning and came back as usual. But as he came near his home, he had to pause for a moment.
Like the previous day, a group of people had gathered in front of his house. The rays of the morning sun were gradually becoming brighter. In that light he could see a car waiting outside his house. He couldn’t understand what was happening. A bit confused and apprehensive, Mathuranath went closer.
Inside the house, he was surprised to find Janakinath talking to Bipin and Bindiya. They became quiet as soon as they saw him.
“What’s the matter Janakinathji? You, at such an early hour?” Bindiya took the vessel of holy Ganga water from Mathuranath and went in.
“Yes, I had to come,” said Janakinath. Then, he looked at Bipin and said, “Bipin, you explain the matter to your father. You please sit down, Punditji.”
Mathurunath kept standing, looking at Bipin suspiciously.
“Father,” Bipin was diffident, “we have to remove that man from our house immediately.
“Because he is a Muslim.”
Mathuranath couldn’t utter a word.
“This is true, Babuji,”said Bipin. “Last night Dayaram told me that the man had mumbled ‘Hai Allah’ while he was still in a stupor.”
Mathuranath stood still for a few moments as if he was taking his time to come back to reality. “All right. But still he is unconscious. You let him rest for some more time. Then he’ll go away on his own. My religion says so.”
“Your keep your religion to yourself, Punditji,” said Janakinath, this time in a firm voice. “The situation will soon take a turn for the worse. Don’t you know the people of Rampur? Do you want another riot?”
For a while, there was silence in the room. Then Janakinath said, “I’ll take care of that sick man. You’ll have to do nothing. Just sit back and relax. Get on with your worship. This is a small problem.”
Perhaps it was a small matter, Still, Mathuranath felt a strange physical irritation. His ears were hot, the sides of his eyes burned. He touched the sacred thread under his namavali and muttered, “Hey Ram, hey Krishna!”
Maturanath washed his legs, wiped his body dry and entered the room of worship. But he didn’t say a word to anyone, as if he had forgotten everything that had happened earlier. The day was sunny, and a soft wind was blowing. Everything was normal. Mathuranath was his usual self, except that he was a little preoccupied.
When Bipin found his mother thoughtful, he said, “Babuji has acted according to his religion. All the rest of it has been by the others. Don’t you think he realises this?”
Kaushalya thought perhaps this was true. Even she couldn’t find any great change in Mathuranath.
The next day at dawn Mathuranath went out as usual. But he never came back.
The news didn’t take much time to spread. Almost the whole of Rampur, including Bipin and Dayram, rushed towards Pirpur Ghat.
The Ganga was calm. The deep, clean water rolled on oblivious of everything else. Nobody knew where or how Mathuranath vanished. There was no trace of his body even after a few days. Then people said, “This man was a true Hindu. Mother Ganga provided him with peace and rest.”
Janakinath and other distinguished men of Rampur liked this explanation. And with the help of the local MLA, they changed the name of Pirpur Ghat.
They rebuilt the broken steps of the ghat and put up a big sign that read:’Mathuranath Ghat’, and below, in smaller but distinct letters they wrote, ‘Only for Hindus’. Soon, for the sake of convenience, people started calling it the ‘Hindu Ghat’.
[Translated from Bengali by Subhamay Ray. The translation was originally published on 30 January 1994 in the now defunct Amrita Bazar Patrika]